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Published: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2018 20:53:47 -0400


Democrats Sue Trump Campaign, Russian Government, and WikiLeaks

Fri, 20 Apr 2018 14:15:00 -0400

The Democratic National Committee is filing a massive lawsuit against the Russian government, President Donald Trump's campaign, and WikiLeaks, alleging a conspiracy to disrupt the presidential election in Trump's favor. Trump himself is not being sued, though his campaign, his son Don Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his associates Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and George Papadopoulos are, along with many others. The complaint was filed today in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. And what a doozy of a lawsuit it is. It claims violations of everything from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to the Wiretap Act to the Stored Communications Act, plus two racketeering violations, a.k.a. RICO claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the favorite law of conspiracy theorists. To attempt to summarize the 66-page lawsuit is to attempt to summarize two years of accusations about the relationship between the Russian government and people surrounding Trump. The lawsuit accuses Russia of infiltrating the DNC's cybersecurity, stealing data and communications, and then offering them to help Trump's campaign, sometimes with WikilLeaks as a go-between. The DNC claims that this conspiracy "undermined and distorted the DNC's ability to communicate the party's values and vision to the American electorate; sowed discord within the Democratic Party at a time when party unity was essential to electoral success; and seriously compromised the DNC's internal and external communications." This seems like the appropriate spot to remind folks that some of the leaked emails showed the DNC treating presidential candidate Bernie Sanders like gum stuck on the bottom of their collective shoes. It "sowed discord" in the sense that it showed Democrats that their party's leadership had already taken sides and lined up behind Hillary Clinton. The organization claims that it saw a drop in donations and that it paid more than $1 million to repair the cybersecurity damage. The DNC is seeking millions of dollars from the defendants, plus acknowledgment of the conspiracy. There's a bit of a tightrope to walk when it comes to judging the merits of the case. The DNC absolutely should use the courts to seek redress from whoever infiltrated their systems and stole their data. It is absolutely a violation of their privacy and property, just as it would be if people were to break into your home and take your stuff. Step back from the political partisanship and the roiled-up outrage, and you'll see that the DNC does at least have a legitimate case against the individuals who hacked the party and then distributed the data they found. But then, of course, politics gets involved and the rest of this goes bonkers. After all this time, the DNC still appear unwilling to contend with the reality that the party pushed forward an unappealing candidate with a privileged, condescending attitude and an unearned sense that she was entitled to the presidency. It was Clinton who drove people away from the polls, not a vast plot hatched in Moscow. Heck, millions of people who did cast votes that November ignored the presidential race entirely. I won't dismiss the idea that people in the Trump campaign may have been more than happy to get sketchy and potentially illegal help from the Russians. But it really does the DNC no good to act as though they played no role in their own failure. Besides, you know who else really wanted to see Donald Trump become the Republican candidate? Clinton's own campaign. Read the DNC lawsuit here.[...]

Why You Shouldn't Want Congress To Regulate Facebook & Other Social Media

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 15:30:00 -0400

As Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before both houses of Congress this week, a little more of the internet prepares to die. We are in a social panic over social media, and the final outcome will almost certainly be some sort of government regulation or self-regulation-by-shotgun (think Comics Code Authority) that will ultimately serve only regulators and the dominant companies that help to write the new rules. But come on, we've got to hurry up! Science says social media makes us depressed, alienated, lonely, bad-smelling! Social media is a vector for youth violence! FFS, even Facebook, which boasts over 2 billion users worldwide, says it makes us crazy and might even be "destroying how society works!" Worst of all, social media—and all the Russian hacking and fake news it abetted—might have helped Donald Trump become president. Regulate now! "Net neutrality," the federal government's attempt to play traffic cop and CFO of the internet by regulating the business practices of mobile and fixed ISPs, is so 2015. Remember when Twitter was fomenting revolutions in autocratic hellholes and allowing the world to express its solidarity against terrorism by shading our avatars this or that color? Now, the very government that only grudgingly admitted that yes, it was in fact collecting all of our metadata and more, is riding to the rescue to save our "privacy" and all that's still good and decent in cyberspace. It has summoned Mark Zuckerberg to explain his business, his dark arts, and his intentions. Like past barons of once-new industries whose growth curves have slowed or started falling, he's keen to play ball with the government. "I actually am not sure we shouldn't be regulated," he said recently. "I think the question is more 'What is the right regulation?' rather than 'Yes or no, should we be regulated?'" Folks in meatspace and online media, especially those who have seen their circulations and audiences tank over the past few years due to Facebook's ever-changing plans, priorities, and algorithms, are cheering such developments. We are in a slow-motion chokehold when it comes to online speech and behavior, and the Facebook drama must be seen in that larger context. Some of the new censoriousness proceeds from congressional action but much of it is cultural. For many in the media, the rise of Trump and the alt-right means that free-speech absolutism must yield to concerns over hate speech, conspiracy-mongering, Russian trolls, and fake news. Individual sites and services such as Backpage, which catered to personal ads that routinely blurred the line between friend-for-pay and prostitution, have been shuttered by the feds, while Craigslist has understandably closed down that whole wing of its operation, which often provided support and community to marginalized groups other than child molesters. Twitter is accused of "shadowbanning" people, mostly conservatives, or purposefully reducing the reach of some people's messages on that network, when it's not simply banning others for speech-code violations. YouTube is "demonetizing" videos with political or sexual themes, thus depriving creators of their God-given rights to make money at YouTube by selling ads against views. (The mass shooter at YouTube's headquarters, a militant vegan, claimed as much.) YouTube's corporate big brother, Google, sells placement in its search engine results and (again, supposedly) tamps down findings that its administrators consider awful or rotten or repellent. Nobody looks at the second page of search results, don't you know, so if you're not first, you're last, or completely immaterial to the public, and that's not fair or something. And then there's Facebook, which has a long history of not giving a fuck about anything other than the passing whims of its creator and the wallets of its investors. In an online-outrage culture that lurches from one screaming match about the last stand of civilization to the next, it's genuinely difficult to remember any, much less all, of the times Facebook has suppo[...]

Beware Censorship by Proxy

Mon, 09 Apr 2018 09:59:00 -0400

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. YouTube is worried you might believe too much of what you see on its website. Amid the clamor for someone, somewhere to do something about "fake news," the company plans to attach "information cues"—excerpts from Wikipedia—to videos that touch on "a list of well-known internet conspiracies." When YouTube, Facebook or Twitter cracks down on some form of expression—conspiracy theories, radical rants, terrorist propaganda—some of the targets inevitably complain that their freedom of speech is under attack. (This feeling of victimhood may be what sent Nasim Aghdam to YouTube headquarters, gun in hand.) There is a strong retort to this: These are private platforms with a right to decide what they publish. It is no more a violation of the First Amendment for YouTube to muzzle a channel it finds offensive than it is for this newspaper to refuse to run a column calling for Minnesota to invade Wisconsin. But what if a private platform suppresses speech because it's afraid the government might otherwise step in? Just as one effective end-run around the Fourth Amendment is to ask private companies for data they slurped up on their own, the First Amendment can be sidestepped when officials pressure the private sector into self-censorship. The end result can be rules more restrictive than the companies would impose on their own—and more intrusive than the government could get away with if it tried to impose them directly. It's happened before. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that free-speech protections did not apply to the movies, a decision rightly reversed in 1952. In the interim, the industry opted to stave off federal regulation by establishing a series of self-censorship systems. The most powerful of these was the Production Code, which was created in 1930 but didn't really grow teeth until 1934, when Congress was mulling several bipartisan bills to tone down motion picture content. Hollywood got the message. Under the code, seduction was "never the proper subject for a comedy," plots couldn't involve "sex relationships between the white and black races," and the drug trade "should not be brought to the attention of audiences," among other tight constraints. Some filmmakers found ways to subtly subvert the restrictions. Many others threw up their hands and let their films be bowdlerized. The Federal Communications Commission directly regulates much of what can and cannot be said over the "public" airwaves. But private radio and television networks also have created their own internal Standards and Practices departments that control content, sometimes at absurd levels of caution. (Early network censors objected to terms as mild as "bloody," "bollixed" and "the W.C.") Broadcasters are not eager to offend their audiences, so some version of Standards and Practices would probably exist even without the FCC. But the desire to stay on regulators' and legislators' good side has clearly been at work in those departments' decisions as well. You can tell because the self-imposed rules eased up when federal content controls were relaxed in the 1980s. The comic book industry adopted a Comics Code after the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a hearing in 1954 on their products' alleged role in fostering crime. The immediate effect was to infantilize the industry, forcing a range of popular horror titles into the dustbin. The "parental advisory" labels affixed to CDs were invented following another Senate circus, the "porn rock" hearings of 1985. The stickers kept some records out of certain stores, and prompted some producers to edit songs or change album lineups to avoid the restrictions. In 1993, another set of Senate hearings inspired a comparable ratings system for video games. Those moves haven't had as much force as the rules adopted by Hollywood and the broadcasters, but that's because the threat of direct federal censorship wasn't as strong. A sort of censorship by proxy was just as clearly in eff[...]

Brickbat: Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Tue, 20 Mar 2018 04:00:00 -0400

(image) District of Columbia Council member Trayon White Sr. seems to think the snowfall that recently hit the city wasn't just the last sign of winter. "Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y'all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation," White said in a video posted to his official Facebook page. "And D.C. keep talking about, 'We a resilient city.' And that's a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful."

A Jailed Model Claims to Have Evidence of Russian Meddling in U.S. Elections. Her Story Is Even Weirder Than You Think.

Wed, 07 Mar 2018 11:45:00 -0500

By now you've probably heard about the Russian model trapped in a Thai jail who claims to have hard evidence of Russia meddling in America's elections. Over the past week, Nastya Rybka's story has been broadcast by major media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times—and largely received like just another gratuitous twist in the MAGA plotline, another pretty young thing who claims to have dirt on Donald Trump and has every reason in the world not to be trusted. Rybka may turn out to know nothing at all about Trump, Russia, and election influence. But in theory, at least, she has a plausible claim to having obtained relevant dirt. She left a trail of evidence of her 2016 affair with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska—a Vladimir Putin ally and Paul Manafort business associate—across Instagram, Periscope, and YouTube. These posts led Russian journalists to discover that Deripaska had been visited on his yacht off Norway by a high-ranking Russian official, and led Russian authorities to threaten to shut down YouTube and Instagram if they didn't remove reports on this. And the Russian official was far from the only important figure that Deripaska met while Rybka was around, she says. Rybka now claims to have audio of Deripaska's conversations that could reveal information about Russia trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In a video from a Thai police car after her arrest, Rybka says she is "the only missing link in the chain related to Russia and elections in the United States"—a chain that links Deripaska, "Putin, and Trump"—and is "ready to provide" her evidence "to the United States, Europe, or any other country that can bail me out of Thai jail." Since Rybka's story hit the U.S media, many have cast doubt on her claim by virtue of its timing, assuming it nothing more than a ruse to get out of trouble in Thailand. But Rybka—who has said her real fear is being sent back to Russia—was alluding to sensitive geopolitical information before her February 26 arrest. "In my book 'Who wants to seduce a billionaire' there are many facts that hurt influential people of several countries," Rybka wrote in a February 22 Instagram post. "Some readers have reacted to it skeptically, believing that the book has artistic fiction. But friends, EVERYTHING there is a real story." The real story of Nastya Rybka's involvement in geopolitical intrigue is far weirder than has been widely told and may be more benign than many would assume. Seduction School Meets Geopolitics Neither the 21-year-old Moscow model nor her mentor seem to be political people. Rybka was hired with a cabal of other young models to socialize at one of Deripaska's yacht parties in 2016. She didn't know who he was at first, she said in a recent interview, but was interested in him because he was confident and powerful. Born in Belarus as Anastasia Vashukevich, Rybka has spent the past several years as a protegee of the pickup artist and seduction coach Alex Lesley. Along with a few others, Rybka and Lesley fly around the world teaching sexual skills and seduction techniques to men and women. Their books (both have authored a few) and social media accounts serve as marketing for these classes, by providing evidence of their prowess at seduction. But Rybka also seems to vacillate between viewing seduction as a "game" she is playing on poor billionaires and having a real attachment to her "victims." On Instagram, Rybka portrays herself not as a sex worker or companion-for-hire (as many places have reported) but a model, author, educator, and "huntress" with a passion for sex, travel, and collecting experience, not cash. She calls herself "the Goldfish"—a nod to her status as a catch for wealthy men who like to go "fishing" for pretty young women—and can be found defending Harvey Weinstein and opining that only a "sexually ill society" attacks "healthy" oligarchs and politicians for "fishing and entertain[ing]...young girls. They give[...]

Are You a Russian Troll?

Mon, 26 Feb 2018 12:00:00 -0500

The federal indictments special counsel Robert Mueller handed down a few days ago confirmed that Russian agents did, indeed, use social media to interfere with the 2016 presidential election—and, even more than that, to sow political animosity, heighten divisions, and pit Americans against one another. Several workers at a Russian "troll farm" have now confirmed the thrust of the indictment. As Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said when the indictments were announced, "the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed." Absolutely right. But how to stop them? Lyudmilla Savchuk—a worker at the troll farm—has explained how Russian agents take pains to hide their true identity: "The most important principle of the work is to have an account like a real person. They create real characters, choosing a gender, a name, a place of living and an occupation. Therefore, it's hard to tell that the account was made for the propaganda." That ability to blend in with online communities raises several troubling questions, the most disturbing of which might be: What if YOU are a Russian troll who sows animosity, heightens division, and pits Americans against one another—and you don't even know it? The following quiz has been developed to help answer that very question. Let's play! (1) When you see a post online that supports your political tribe, you (a) treat it skeptically until its assertions can be independently confirmed; (b) nod sagely and move on; (c) pause to enjoy the sweet, sweet dopamine hit that comes from having your existing beliefs confirmed; or (d) immediately share it with everybody you can think of. (2) When you read something that makes you mad, you (a) pause to consider the possibility that the author is right and you are wrong; (b) forget it and move on; (c) stop reading immediately to avoid being exposed to ideas you dislike; or (d) leave a comment pointing out that the author is a despicable excuse for a human being who should die a slow and wretched death. (3) Terms such as "libtard" and "rethuglican" are (a) demeaning insults that inhibit the open exchange of ideas and prevent learning from others; (b) kind of juvenile; (c) pretty witty, actually; (d) literally true. (4) An article about a person of the opposing political tribe who has said or done something really stupid and embarrassing is (a) nothing but partisan clickbait; (b) not surprising; (c) further proof that all members of the opposing tribe are stupid; (d) going up on your social-media account in 3... 2.... (5) A politician of your own political tribe has just done something really stupid and embarrassing. You (a) find this dismaying, and say so; (b) explain why it's not so bad; (c) attack the opposing tribe for being jerks and making a big fat deal out of it; (d) point out that it's not half as bad as all the stupid, embarrassing things members of the opposing tribe have done. (5) As a member in good standing of your political tribe, you have always believed X. The leader of your political tribe has just come out against X. You (a) call him or her to account for abandoning your tribe's principles; (b) try not to notice; (c) change your mind about X; (d) change your mind about X and attempt to excommunicate any member of your political tribe who still has the audacity to think X is even defensible. (6) People who disagree with you deserve (a) an honest hearing; (b) pity; (c) scorn; (d) to burn in hell for all eternity. (7) Online memes are (a) superficial and usually inaccurate characterizations of the opposing tribe's views; (b) occasionally sharp critiques of the tensions inherent in any belief system; (c) hilarious; (d) stupid if they're about your side and brilliant if they're about the other side. SCORING: Give yourself one point for each (a), two points for each (b), three points for each (c), and f[...]

'Crisis Actors,' Conspiracy Theories, and the Fear of Social Media

Thu, 22 Feb 2018 09:30:00 -0500

"Crisis actor" conspiracy theories claim that various mass shootings and other public tragedies are staged by the powers that be, and that you can tell this because some of the same faces keep coming up when the media cover the crime scenes. The idea has taken off yet again in the wake of the Parkland massacre, with assorted yo-yos declaring that the survivors who have been all over TV for the last week are actually paid actors. As always, some of those yo-yos hold more prominent positions than you'd guess from the common but misleading stereotype of the conspiracy theorist as an unemployable crackpot in his mom's basement. Notably, an aide to a Florida state representative lost his job this week after claiming that two of the Parkland teens "are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis [sic] when they happen." For some pundits, this isn't merely a reminder that people are capable of believing bizarre stories that are based on only the thinnest alleged evidence. The pundits worry that the rumor represents a breakdown in the media ecosystem. A ThinkProgress story, to pick one representative example, announces in its lede that these crisis-actor tales "have spread like wildfire across social media platforms—despite the repeated promises of Big Tech to crack down on fake news." The author circles back to that idea at the end, arguing that "the viral spread of the 'crisis actor' theory, along with other recent examples of highly-shared fake content, shows that [Facebook] is still ripe for misinformation and exploitation." How ripe? The piece notes that one Facebook post touting the theory has gotten more than 110,000 shares, and that some of the videos promoting the idea have been "viewed tens of thousands of times." We do not know how many of those 110,000 shares were trolls or bots, those crisis actors of the online world. Nor do we know how many people watched one of those videos because they were inclined to believe it, how many watched because they were inclined to laugh at it, and how many just turned it off after 30 seconds. Most importantly, ThinkProgress doesn't do anything to contextualize those numbers. MSNBC posted a video yesterday of one of the Parkland students reacting disdainfully to the idea that he's an imposter; as I type this, that's been viewed 94,000 times. That is also in the "tens of thousands," though I suppose we don't know how many of those viewers believe what they're hearing either. (The student himself suggests that the conspiracy theorists are just trolls, and that they're ultimately helping rather than hurting his anti-gun cause.) I probably follow more weirdos on Twitter than most people do, and in my feed the overwhelming majority of tweets mentioning crisis actors have denounced, debunked, or just made fun of the theories. Of course it's possible that I just follow a better class of weirdo, so I did a Twitter search for "crisis actors" to see what sort of cross-section of opinion would appear. Of the first 30 tweets that came up, two-thirds were putting down the idea. I did the same on Facebook both Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, and I got roughly the same results, with a slightly higher percentage knocking or mocking the idea on the second day. I also noticed that several (though not all) of the Facebook posts promoting the idea were getting pushback in the comments. So this isn't just a matter of conversations taking place in separate bubbles. Actual arguments were underway. Now, I know very well that those are not scientific samples. I'm not going to make any grand claims here about how many people have embraced or rejected the rumor. But what I saw does at least reinforce what common sense would suggest: that widespread discussion of a bizarre belief is not the same as widespread support for a bizarre belief. That is especially true when you remember three more things: 1. Many of the people who beli[...]

Feds Announce Indictments of Russian Nationals for Attempting to Influence American Elections

Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:51:00 -0500

Today, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced a pack of federal indictments against 13 Russian nationals and three companies, accusing them of a conspiracy against the United States, wire fraud, and identity theft in efforts to influence American politics, including the 2016 presidential election. The 37-page indictment by Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller was released this afternoon and quickly followed by a press conference by Rosenstein. Here's a quick summary of the most important points: These Russians, through a St. Petersburg-based company named Internet Research Agency, put together a massive, expensive project to try to influence the outcome of U.S. elections beginning in 2014. The Russian defendants came to the United States to gather intelligence on political and social issues in the United States, but misled the U.S. government about their reasons for being in the country. They used both fabricated and stolen identities to set up personas, social media accounts, and bank accounts for the purpose of making it appear that they were politically engaged American grassroots activists. They then bankrolled advertising campaigns and rallies to influence the election outcome. The indictment makes it clear they believe the Russian influence campaign was primarily about disparaging Hillary Clinton and supporting Donald Trump. But they also note that the Russian groups even bankrolled an anti-Trump rally on the same day as an anti-Clinton rally to help create discord. But it wasn't all just Trump and Clinton: "They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump." The Russian defendants were directed to create "political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements." In the back half of 2016 they launched a campaign to try to discourage minority groups from voting in the presidential election at all or to vote for third-party candidates. The Russian defendants worked with U.S. people to magnify these messages and push these rallies while keeping their identities a secret. They even communicated with the Trump campaign, but both the indictment and Rosenstein's press conference today made it clear that they have no evidence that these Americans ever knew they were dealing with Russians. By deliberately concealing that they were Russians, this fraud prevented federal agencies like the Federal Election Commission and Department of Justice from enforcing laws and disclosure requirements for foreign involvement in domestic issues. There is nothing in these indictments related to any evidence or allegations of hacking into election systems. The charges are all related to misleading the federal government and engaging in fraud. No cyberwarfare. Rosenstein said at the press conference that there is no evidence that any of this behavior actually altered the election outcome. Jacob Sullum previously looked at the social media data and came away deeply unimpressed at the Russian effort's reach. Likewise, Jesse Walker took note that Russia's efforts to foment an anti-immigrant rally in Idaho did not appear to actually amount to much. The text of the indictment tends to affirm that what Russia was doing here was magnifying already extant cultural rifts in order to make them louder and appear more significant. Watch Rosenstein's press conference below: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> UPDATE: President Trump tweets a response: Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election [...]

That Time the LaRouchies Won Two Primaries in Illinois

Fri, 09 Feb 2018 14:20:00 -0500

Arthur Jones, a man whose career includes a long stint in the National Socialist White People's Party, is on track to win the Republican nomination next month in Illinois' 3rd Congressional District. When this story first started attracting attention, some people added it to their list of signs that bigots are newly "emboldened" in the Trump era. But on closer examination, it turned out to be more of a sign that the Democrats have a stranglehold on the 3rd District: Jones is a perennial fringe candidate, and the only reason the old Nazi looks likely to actually win a primary this time is because he's the only candidate on the Republican side who bothered to sign up. That's the kind of thing that can happen in a race that one party is sure to lose. But this post isn't about Jones. It's about the déjà vu this story is giving me. It was in the same state, 32 years ago, that two followers of the proto-fascist crank Lyndon LaRouche managed to win the Democratic nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state. That time there were some other candidates on the primary ballot—George Sangmeister and Aurelia Pucinski, respectively. When Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart beat them, the most widespread theory had it that they won by having less "ethnic" names. Below you'll find a 1986 C-Span interview with Fairchild, the would-be lieutenant governor. Asked at the beginning if LaRouche runs an "anti-Semitic, hate-filled, neo-Nazi organization," Fairchild, who was 28 at the time, describes the charge as "pretty heavy-duty stuff" and denies it. He then goes on to discuss his platform, which among other things included quarantining AIDS patients and using the military to fight the war on drugs. The talk also turns to some of LaRouche's trademark conspiracy theories, including the notions that Henry Kissinger is secretly gay, that Walter Mondale is a KGB agent, and that the queen of England is a drug dealer. But the best moment comes at 51:20, when a caller reads a passage from the LaRouchie book Dope, Inc.: In the late 1940s, University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman was installed as President of the Gold Seal Liquor Company—the original Capone enterprise. Friedman soon also assumed the presidency of the Illinois Liquor Dealers Association—a position from which he no doubt carried out his first experiments in "free market economics." "My understanding," the caller remarks, "is that the Milton Friedman who headed Gold Seal Liquors is a totally different Milton Friedman than Milton Friedman the economist." For the record, the caller's understanding was correct. The Republicans wound up crushing the LaRouche Democrats. Meanwhile, Adlai Stevenson III, who had been set to be the Democratic nominee for governor, instead created a third party—the Solidarity Party—rather than share a ticket with Fairchild and Hart. The punchline: After Stevenson returned to the Democrats, the Solidarity Party and its ballot line were seized by a group whose cultist reputation rivaled the LaRouchies'—the New Alliance Party. And the New Alliance Party had been created by one Fred Newman, a former ally of a fellow named Lyndon LaRouche. Here is the full C-Span interview: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="512" height="330" frameborder="0"> (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. Dope, Inc. was co-authored by David Goldman, who after leaving the LaRouche movement started blogging under the name "Spengler"; to see what he's up to these days, go here.)[...]

Republicans Aren’t the Only Ones Prone to Russia-Investigation Conspiracy Theories

Sat, 03 Feb 2018 14:15:00 -0500

(image) It has been a bad couple of days for those Republicans and conservative commentators who had warned pre-#ReleaseTheMemo that not only would the FBI malfeasance against President Donald Trump be revealed as worse than Watergate, but in fact "100 times bigger" than the underlying beef colonists had against King George III. But as Nick Gillespie pointed out this morning, it's also been a pretty bad 12 months for Democrat/lefty connect-the-dots, government-aggrandizing hyperbole as well.

It's gotten so routine that people barely notice it anymore. "Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians?" political analyst John Heilemann asked on Morning Joe this Tuesday. "Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?" Flipping on cable news Thursday it took me all of five seconds to hear the nonsense-burger phrase, "The Russians are attacking our Constitution." (Even sillier, such sentiments are usually preceded by throat-clearing about how this is the crucial underlying issue being lost in the din of day-to-day political shouting.)

We catalogue the heavy breathing on both sides in the latest episode The Fifth Column, recorded pre-memo and posted after. Kmele Foster, Michael C. Moynihan, and I also go down some Sockless Joe Scarborough musical rabbit holes, and end up with a surprisingly long conversation about the relationship between foreign policy "realism" and the Trump administration. You can listen to the whole thing here:

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Everybody's Talking About 'The Memo' and Ignoring the Surveillance Debate

Tue, 30 Jan 2018 12:45:00 -0500

The first thing you need to know about "The Memo" is that nobody can truly tell you what you need to know about "The Memo" in advance. That's part of the whole shtick. Here are some basics, though. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), previously an extremely pro-surveillance lawmaker, and his staff in the House Intelligence Committee crafted a four-page memo that claims to show that the FBI abused its surveillance authorities. The memo apparently claims that the FBI misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) with the now-infamous "Steele Dossier" in order to get permission to wiretap former Trump aide Carter Page and his conversations with Russian officials. All of this, they say, was part of a conspiracy to attack the Trump administration. Nunes' memo is currently classified. It has been seen by House lawmakers and, over the weekend, by FBI Director Chris Wray. Last night the House Intelligence Committee voted to begin the process of publicly declassifying and releasing the memo. This starts a five-day clock for Trump to weigh in on if he wants to keep the memo classified. The White House has suggested that it supports the memo's release; we'll see what actually happens. In the meantime, everybody wants to tell you what to think about the memo based on whether they're backers of Team Red or Team Blue. For those of us who are neither and don't care whose ox gets gored (or hope they all do), there are still reasons to care about what's happening, why it's happening, and the overall impact of this fight. Yes, This Memo's Release Is Politically Motivated. That's OK. The Democrats also prepared their own memo explaining what they believed happened with the wiretapping. The Republican-controlled Intelligence Committee declined to release the Democratic version. So only one party here—the party the president belongs to—will be able to publicly represent its interpretation of the surveillance of somebody close to the president. It's silly to pretend that this is not a deliberate effort to undermine the investigation of potentially inappropriate behavior between people close to Trump and foreign governments. It's also silly to deny that the Democrats' sudden insistence that the FBI is beyond reproach (yeah, right) is a deliberate attempt to undermine critique. But there might actually be an upside to all this political posturing. The average American knows very little about how federal surveillance works in practice. A sudden burst of transparency, even one-sided and politically motivated, can at least give everyone a better understanding of how the secretive foreign intelligence court actually works. And for better or worse, Trump is the president of the United States. Secret surveillance of people in the president's orbit by members of his own government is a big deal. It's completely appropriate to reject the idea that we should simply trust that FBI officials are behaving appropriately. They have a very lengthy history of doing otherwise. But the Memo Is Not Going to Tell You What Actually Happened. The Nunes memo is an interpretation of classified intelligence that was used to get authorization to snoop on Page. But it's not the intelligence itself. So if we're willing to acknowledge that part of the motivation to release the memo is to protect Trump, we have to acknowledge that this memo is probably not going to tell the whole story. Do not take this as a demand to keep the memo secret. We should see the memo. We should see the Democrats' memo. And at some point, we should be able to see the underlying intelligence. Note that Trump, as the president of the United States, has wide authority to arrange for the declassification and release of this intelligence information that supposedly has been misapplied in order to snoop on him and undermine [...]

No, Russians Bots Aren't Responsible for #ReleaseTheMemo

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 18:05:00 -0500

Last week, Republicans began to call for the release of a memo authored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that purports to lay out a series of abuses connected to the FBI surveillance of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. As often happens these days, a Twitter hashtag, #ReleaseTheMemo, evolved around the effort and was widely retweeted by Republicans and elected officials. It didn't take long for a report to emerge that claimed Russian-sponsored Twitter accounts and bots were the real driving force behind the viral call for the release of the memo. Without worrying about the veracity of this convenient claim, all the usual suspects giddily spread the story across social media—probably because they have such a deep reverence for truth in the Era of Trump. The report also prompted Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, both California Democrats, to pull out every fearmongering catchphrase available to demand that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg perform an "in-depth forensic examination" on the "ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process." It's difficult, it seems, for some people to embrace neutral principles nowadays. But if you genuinely believe that President Donald Trump's distasteful tweets are attacks on the foundations of free expression, how could you not be alarmed by a pair of powerful elected officials demanding that social media companies hand over information about their users? What would they say if the president had sent a letter to Google insisting it give the executive branch an "in-depth forensic examination" of his political opponent's searches? As it turns out, reports today say that Twitter's internal analysis found it was mostly Americans, not creepy Slavic mind-control robots, who were behind the hashtags. Not that it really matters, anyway. If a group of Americans has a legitimate issue to rally around, how is it supposed to control what outsiders do? It's not as if #ReleaseTheMemo was secret or illegal. Republican politicians were openly using it. Yet if Feinstein and Schiff had their way, Twitter and Facebook would have moved to quash the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag for what apparently turned out to be solely partisan reasons. Sounds like a power that can be abused. Even if the two had been genuinely troubled by Russian hashtags—yes, suspend your disbelief—the source of "fake news" is not always easily discernible. Sometimes it comes to you from an anonymous Russian bot, and sometimes it's retweeted by a prominent journalist. Democrats have manufactured panic over amateurish Russian propaganda to not only claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin was "meddling" in the election but also to argue that interference had the power to turn the election to Trump. With this risible idea in hand, they have created paranoia about social media interactions and rationalized infringements on expression. Not long before demanding forensic investigations into hashtags, Feinstein was demanding that Twitter, Facebook and Google restrict their content more tightly, threatening, "Do something about it—or we will." Democrats have attempted to control interactions through the Fairness Doctrine or the IRS, and now through the Russia scare. Part of living in a free country is dealing with messy, ugly misinformation. Lots of people in the United States seem pretty impressed by how they do things in Europe. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is launching a "rapid response unit" run by the state to "battle the proliferation of 'fake news' online." The "national security communications unit" will be tasked with combatting misinformation—as if it has either[...]

Wormwood’s Bad Trip Peddles CIA Conspiracies

Fri, 26 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

Wormwood. Available now on Netflix. Nothing bores me more than weepy declarations of the end of American innocence. If there ever was such a moment, it came hundreds of years ago when the first slave ship arrived, the first Indian was shot, or maybe when the first witch was hanged. But there's no denying that much of the country was pretty stunned to learn in 1975 that a CIA employee named Frank Olson jumped out a 10th-floor hotel window after being secretly dosed with LSD by his own boss as part of a U.S. government mind-control experiment. Toppling governments in Guatemala or Iran at least had some sense of purpose, however foul; Olson's death sounded more like a tawdry, callous frat prank, a profound and pointless repudiation of the very concept of morality. Five decades later, investigative filmmaker Errol Morris' Wormwood is trying to convince us that it was something even worse, the ruthless murder of a political dissident with his six-part documentary Wormwood, a razzle-dazzle exercise in multimedia virtuosity that substitutes sinister showmanship for facts and silly sophistry for deductive logic. American innocence may have been lost a long time ago, but the casual acceptance of Wormwood's empty claims certainly suggests that the tides of American citizens' cynicism about their government are teaching new high points. "Wormwood" in the Bible refers literally to poison and metaphorically to bitter truth, and both usages underlie the documentary. It recounts the quest of Eric Olson, Frank's son, to prove his father was not just collateral damage in a CIA experiment in behavioral control experiment but the victim of a government execution. Frank Olson, a bacteriologist, began working during World War II as a civilian contractor for a U.S. Army biological warfare lab and then graduated to a Frankenstein-ish CIA unit dedicated to better covert living through chemistry. It provided poisons for CIA assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and leftist Congolese leader Patrice Lumemba and dabbled in the use of LSD and other hallucinogens as two-way weapons that might be used either to unmask Soviet moles in the West or create American moles behind the Iron Curtain. In 1953, Olson and several CIA colleagues attended a retreat at a rural Maryland hunting lodge to discuss their work with psychotropic drugs. The meeting turned out to be more hands-on than anybody expected; Sidney Gottlieb, who ran the drug program, spiked the drinks of nearly all the participants with LSD. The idea was to see how they'd react to the drug in a non-clinical situation. The result was the spook version of a 1960s college dorm party; a lot of giggling and incoherent philosophical debates. Olson, however, had the mother of all bad trips. Within a couple of days, convinced he had made a fool of himself at the retreat, he showed up at his supervisor's office to say he wanted to quit or be fired. As his condition deteriorated over the next 24 hours, Olson's bosses decided he needed psychiatric help. They sent him to New York to see a doctor named Harold Abramson, who was interested in psychiatry but had no formal training. (By trade, he was an immunologist.) But he had been a CIA contractor, had a security clearance, and, perhaps most importantly, had worked with the agency's LSD project. Olson, however, grew even more paranoid. He was convinced the CIA was drugging him further. He snuck out of a Broadway show to avoid the armed men he was certain were waiting outside to grab him and spent a night wandering the streets, throwing away his identification and money, on what he imagined were CIA orders. The next night he went flying out his hotel room window. Olson's family was told only that he had jumped or fallen, not about the[...]

Conservatism's Not-So-'Secret' Society of Opportunistic Hacks

Thu, 25 Jan 2018 17:55:00 -0500

Before we say our final goodbyes to the "secret society" that for a few terrifying moments was puppeteering the deep-state opposition to President Donald Trump, a brief recap of one of conservatism's most embarrassing 41-hour stretches: * On Tuesday evening, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, made a startling accusation on Fox News about both the FBI and Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation: "So what this is all about is further evidence of corruption—more than bias, but corruption—at the highest levels of the FBI. And that 'secret society'? We have an informant who's talking about a group that was holding secret meetings off-site. There's so much smoke here, there are so many suspicions." Cue endless "Worse than Watergate" headlines in the conservative media. * Then on Wednesday night, ABC News obtained the "secret society" text-message in question, from FBI lawyer Lisa Page and to her agent-boyfriend Peter Strzok the day after Trump's victorious election: "Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society." In other words, it was probably a joke. * And on Thursday morning, Johnson told CNN congressional correspondent Manu Raju that "It's a real possibility" the text was written in jest. Oh, and the Justice Department's "conveniently" missing text messages between Strzok and Page from December 2016 and May 2017, that Johnson had been sounding the alarm about? This morning we learned they've been found. Before we blithely move on as if nothing untoward happened here (sample Americans for Limited Government press release: "Big win for Attorney General Sessions on lost and found FBI text messages, now House must release the memo"), it's worth lingering on how brain-bendingly stupid this whole episode obviously was from the get-go, and what that says about the barely twitching husk of governing conservatism. Start with Ron Johnson. A member of the original 2010 Tea Party wave in Congress, Johnson made a name for himself during his first term fighting Obama-administration executive overreach—suing the Office of Personnel and Management for writing broad interpretations of the Affordable Care Act, lambasting Obama's immigration executive orders, arguing that new Authorizations for the Use of Military Force should be passed for new conflicts, and otherwise leaning into his oversight job with vigor. Remember when an exasperated Hillary Clinton told a Senate committee "What difference, at this point, does it make?!" That was Ron Johnson she was talking to. So what kind of executive-branch oversight is the senator conducting on Homeland Security in his position as chair? This kind: When, as part of its investigation into possible collusion and conspiracy between a nuclear-armed adversary and an incoming administration, Mueller's investigators acquired the Trump transition team's emails from the General Services Administration (GSA), Johnson fired off a sternly worded letter about activities that potentially "disregarded federal statutes." Not by any Trump associates, mind you, but by the GSA. Johnson's letter, which came on the heels of a similar one from a Trump lawyer, contributed to another 48-hour storm on the right. "A coup in America?" ran the chyron over at Fox News. FrontPage Mag needed no such question mark. "Mueller's Sinister Coup Attempt," ran the headline in David Horowitz's journal. "The special counsel threatens the rule of law by stealing Trump transition documents." There was widespread speculation that Trump was preparing to fire Mueller. But then it was subsequently reported out that the GSA emails were almost certain[...]

Dianne Feinstein Ignores GOP Lawmakers, Blames #ReleaseTheMemo on Russians and Social Media Instead

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 12:35:00 -0500

Trust Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to try to turn a political controversy into an excuse to censor social media. A bunch of Republican lawmakers have been rallying around a classified memo by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The memo purports to show FBI abuses connected to the secret surveillance of people involved with Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The push to declassify the document was national news last week, complete with a hashtag campaign, #ReleaseTheMemo. It was discussed by every major news outlet. Several GOP lawmakers tweeted the hashtag. Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are upset because a bunch of Russian-operated Twitter accounts may have jumped on this and attempted the magnify the hashtag campaign's reach. The two of them have sent a letter to Twitter and Facebook pretty much demanding that they investigate the extent of the Russian involvement in the hashtag campaign. And they want a response in three days: If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process. This should be disconcerting to all Americans, but especially your companies as, once again, it appears the vast majority of their efforts are concentrated on your platforms. This latest example of Russian interference is in keeping with Moscow's concerted, covert, and continuing campaign to manipulate American public opinion and erode trust in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions. Feinstein is confusing a symptom for a problem, as politicians often do when they have agendas to pursue. It's absurd to hold Russia responsible for the hashtag in any meaningful sense, given that Republican lawmakers were openly, overtly screaming it from the rooftops, on Twitter, and in front of every news camera they could see. A source familiar with how Twitter works told The Hill that the growth of the hashtag appeared to have happened organically. If Russian trolls and bots were involved, they were at most magnifying a conflict that was already underway. They didn't set this fire, and they weren't the chief force spreading it. Feinstein's political machinations here are twofold. She's trying to make the case that the feds must regulate social media because of foreign involvement in American elections; and second, she's using the familiar guilt-by-association logical fallacy to discredit her political opponents. Feinstein's love of censorship is well known. She flat-out wants to suppress online content that she deems dangerous. This lack of respect for Americans' speech rights and privacy is one of the few things she has in common with Trump. As for the guilt-by-association issue, it's remarkable how little people on either side are interested in engaging the surveillance issues that undergird this fight and instead want to make it all about attacking or defending Trump. I've already mocked Republicans acting outraged about the Nunes memo because a bunch of them just voted to expand the feds' power to snoop on American citizens for purposes unrelated to terrorism and espionage. On the very same day this hashtag campaign was launching, Trump signed that bill into law. The discussion of actual surveillance policy got drowned by constant efforts to either discredit Trump (by any silly memes necessary) or to discredit the FBI investigation. What's most obnoxious about Feinstein and Schiff's response here is how it simply does not engage the complaint that the surveillance state might have abused its powers when it snooped on and possibly unmasked the identities of people in Trump's orbi[...]