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Published: Tue, 25 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Tue, 25 Apr 2017 04:50:02 -0400


Bill O'Reilly: The Kennedy Conspiracy Years

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 12:30:00 -0400

As we await the next stage of Bill O'Reilly's career—RT host? FCC commissioner? down-on-his-luck high-school basketball coach?—let's set the Wayback Machine for 1979 and check out one of the fallen Fox star's earlier incarnations. Before he was the Joe Pyne of cable news, before he was the tantrum-prone anchor of a syndicated tabloid show, O'Reilly was a twentysomething baby-boomer with a moptop of '70s hair and a yen to do investigative journalism. In 1979, when JFK assassinology was arguably at its peak, he tackled the death of John F. Kennedy in a report for a TV station in Connecticut. In the clip below, O'Reilly focuses on one of the odder byways of the JFK theories: the so-called "umbrella man" who raised a parasol shortly before the president was shot.

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After the station re-aired that in 2013, an anchor there posted an item promoting it online. "Look for our Carter-era disco inspired logo, the size of the tape cassette recorder Bill carried with him, his powder blue bell bottom pants, and the copious chest hair he showed off to the viewers," he advised, adding: "Hey, it was the '70s." As for the actual theory explored in the report, he described it as "fascinating yet somewhat bizarre."

There is, for the record, a non-conspiratorial explanation for the umbrella man; Errol Morris covers that here. O'Reilly returned to the JFK assassination during his tenure on Inside Edition; you can watch that happen here. More recently, O'Reilly wrote—or at least put his name on—a book called Killing Kennedy; I haven't read it, but a text search at Amazon reveals that the word "umbrella" doesn't appear in it.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. And I suppose I should take this opportunity to promote my book on the history of American conspiracy theories, right? Check that out here.)

The Great Charles Manson Conspiracy

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 10:35:00 -0400

The Daily Beast just devoted a podcast to Charles Manson, and they had me on to chat about Manson conspiracy theories. This mostly meant we talked about John Todd, a con man who in the '70s started posing as an Illuminati defector and who claimed, among other things, that Manson was raising an Illuminist army behind bars that would soon be rampaging across the country. But we touch on other topics too, from the first American Illuminati scare of the 18th century to the conspiracy theories of Mae Brussell. The full episode is below; my bit starts around the 27-minute mark.

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How Those Trump/Russia Tales Are Like a Bowl of Spaghetti

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 10:35:00 -0400

(image) When I speak skeptically about some alleged break in the Russia/Trump story, people sometimes tut-tut and tell me that "evidence is accumulating" that will prove a vast plot. Unfortunately, they're not always clear on how to tell a credible accusation from a kooky one. There's a spectrum of theses out there, with "Paul Manafort is a sleazeball" on one end of the plausibility spectrum and "Donald Trump became a Soviet sleeper agent in 1987" on the other.

In the L.A. Times today, I offer three pieces of advice for people who want to keep an open mind about potential wrongdoing but don't want to get lost in the liberal version of Glenn Beck's old chalkboard. "In conspiracy movies," I write, "covert politics is an octopus: There's a big head at the center manipulating everything with its tentacles. In real life, it's more like a bowl of spaghetti—a tangled mess of connections without a center." I hope you like that metaphor, because I spend the rest of the column belaboring it. Check it out here.

The Age of Frank Gaffney

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 13:12:00 -0400

Peter Beinart has a detailed article in The Atlantic about the anti-Islamic theories of Frank Gaffney, a man who thinks that Islam in itself is a subversive force and that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to turn America into a caliphate. Beinart's piece, which is convincing on most points, looks both at how Gaffney's views have grown more influential in the Trump era and at how they fit into the longer history of conspiracy theories about minority groups. I found this passage particularly interesting: It was not September 11 that made conservatives receptive to Gaffney's theories. It was America's failed post-9/11 wars. Joseph McCarthy won a following in the early 1950s, when Americans were exhausted by the stalemated war in Korea, by arguing that the real communist threat could be vanquished cheaply and nonviolently by ferreting out traitors at home. Gaffney argues something similar. "We can kill as many semi-literate bad guys as possible in the world's most hellish backwaters," he declared in 2012, "but as long as we ignore, or worse yet, empower and submit, to the toxic ideology they share with highly educated and well spoken Islamists in this country and elsewhere, we are doomed to defeat." Over the last decade, conservatives disillusioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and alienated from their party's interventionist elite, have found in Gaffney's theories an appealing alternative. Beinart has overstated his case here. The grassroots right did see an increase right after 9/11 in Gaffney-style crank theories about Islam. (And for that matter, the postwar Red Scare began before McCarthy's antics, and indeed before the Korean War.) But the real growth in Gaffneyism did come later, and I think Beinart's theory helps explain why. War-weariness can express itself in many ways. Gaffney himself shows no sign of being war-weary—his organization, the Center for Security Policy, is constantly hyping one external threat or another—but his ideas about Islamic subversion have an obvious attraction for conservatives disillusioned both with Bush-era ideas about how to fight jihadism and Bush-era ideas about Islam as a religion of peace. In any event, Beinart's piece is worth a read. But before you rush over to check it out, a couple of parting thoughts on the other fellow mentioned in that passage. The McCarthy era is widely remembered—with good reason—as a time of conformity, with people feeling pressure to conceal dissenting views. But what makes the McCarthy period stand out from the rest of the postwar Red Scare is that the senator aimed his accusations at some of the central institutions of American life, finally crashing after he reached too far and attacked the Army. There is a tension between enforcing conformity and disrupting institutions, and that tension didn't disappear entirely with McCarthy's fall; the fiercest segments of the anti-Communist right continued to amp up their domestic distrust after he departed the stage. The John Birch Society, for example, gradually moved from seeing powerful Americans as agents of the Communists to seeing Communists as agents of powerful Americans. If you seriously believe that the country's most powerful institutions are being infiltrated by the enemy, then there comes a point when you start seeing those institutions as enemies themselves. The fear of subversion itself breeds subversive suspicions. And that wasn't just true during the Cold War. Ask any Bush-era national-security conservative who today is overflowing with suspicion of the Deep State. Yet this sort of fear can also have a de-radicalizing effect: A distrust of institutions can be displaced by a distrust of the people who happen to occupy the institutions at the moment. The Obama years didn't end with the election of a veteran Tea Partier; they ended with the election of a veteran birther. The noisiest Deep State–fearing conservatives are less interested in rolling back the intelligence agencies than in purging them. And [...]

John McCain Makes Heinously False Charge That Rand Paul ‘is now working for Vladimir Putin’

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 18:13:00 -0400

What do you call a U.S. senator who opposes the expansion of NATO to include the troubled former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, a country that survived a (reportedly Russia-backed) coup attempt as recently as last fall? If you're Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and that colleague is intervention-skeptic Rand Paul, you call him, remarkably, a pawn of Vladimir Putin. "You are achieving the objectives of Vladimir Putin... of trying to dismember this small country," McCain lectured Paul on the Senate floor today. (Was it really just five weeks ago that Mitch McConnell silenced Elizabeth Warren over impugning the conduct and motives of a Senate colleague?) McCain then asked for unanimous consent for the Senate to approve Montenegro's accession into the U.S.-led military alliance, and Paul objected, before quickly exiting. That's when McCain got all voice-quivery and hand-choppy: I note the senator from Kentucky leaving the floor without justification or any rationale for the action he has just taken. That is really remarkable, that a senator blocking a treaty that is supported by the overwhelming number, perhaps 98—at least—of his colleagues would come to the floor and object and walk away. And walk away! The only conclusion you can draw, when he walks away, is he has no argument to be made, he has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians. So I repeat again: The senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin. Watch it here: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> In a follow-up statement, Paul said: Currently, the United States has troops in dozens of countries and is actively fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen (with the occasional drone strike in Pakistan). In addition, the United States is pledged to defend 28 countries in NATO. It is unwise to expand the monetary and military obligations of the United States given the burden of our $20 trillion debt. McCain has been getting a lot of good press these days for the usual reason—occasionally opposing a Republican president that the press also doesn't like. Included in his latest round of re-mavericking are hosannahs for his brave stance against Trumpian conspiracy mongering. Will his friends in the press now point out that the Arizona senator has made a horrendous dual-loyalty charge against a sitting colleague with zero evidence aside from a procedural vote? McCain has been slamming Paul over his supposed "isolationism" since 2010, famously calling him a "wacko bird" in March 2013, telling reporters a few months later that a Rand vs. Hillary presidential race would be a "tough choice," and unhappily sharing a Foreign Relations Committee seat with the Tea Party senator these past four-plus years. Paul has frequently returned the favor by using the phrase "stale and moss-covered." All of which is understandable, given their very different positions on an important issue central to both of them. But just because Vladimir Putin dislikes an American policy doesn't make it automatically virtuous or wise. Part of the original conception of NATO expansion—which I, unlike 99 percent of libertarians, both favored and covered while it was happening—was that the new members had to be stable, with border disputes with neighbors fully resolved at the treaty level, substantial minority-population protections, and no pressing disputes with adversaries. Does that sound like Montenegro to you? Or Georgia, which McCain has been pushing for NATO inclusion since at least 2008 (and which Paul single-handedly blocked in 2011)? Despite writing a book critical of his views, I have happily defended John McCain against scurrilous charges about his patriotism and heroism. To see him go rhetorically McCarthyite against a fellow American for having the temerity to disagree with his often questionable foreign poli[...]

The Paranoid Presidency

Tue, 28 Feb 2017 09:50:00 -0500

(image) Donald Trump is famously prone to conspiracy theories, but that in itself isn't unusual in the executive branch. "Indeed, there's a long history of presidents and their inner circles obsessing about malevolent cabals. What's different about Trump isn't the fact that he talks about dubious conspiracies. It's the way he talks about them."

Who am I quoting there? Why, I'm quoting myself! Yep, this is one of those Hit & Run posts where we promote a piece we published elsewhere. In this case, The New Republic asked me to write something about presidential paranoia, and I obliged with a story that hops from John Quincy Adams' obsession with Masonic plots to Richard Nixon stewing about the Jews to Donald Trump's dark speculations about the death of Antonin Scalia. What makes Trump stand out, I argue, isn't the content of his theories so much as the fact that he spouts them without regard for elite mores:

Conspiracy theories tend to be disreputable. Indeed, in most circles of respectable opinion, the very phrase conspiracy theory is used as a pejorative. So when high-level officials embrace a position considered to be taboo, they often prefer not to talk about it. John Kerry has long rejected the official story about JFK's assassination, but when Meet the Press brought up the subject in 2013, the secretary of state clammed up. "I just have a point of view," Kerry demurred. "And I'm not going to get into that."

Our new president, to the delight of his supporters, presents himself as a man unshackled by such mores of polite society. Richard Nixon may have been prone to seeing plots everywhere, but it's hard to imagine him publicly promoting a transparently phony theory tying Rafael Cruz to Lee Harvey Oswald; it's harder still to picture him backing up his claims by citing the National Enquirer. For Trump, neither the story nor the source is something to be ashamed of.

There's a strong chance, of course, that Trump doesn't actually believe the Enquirer story, and that he only brought it up because Ted Cruz happened to be his chief political foe that day. That's where his cynicism comes in. Trump doesn't just spout unsubstantiated accusations; he often drops them as quickly as he brings them up, as though it never really mattered if they were true.

The full article is here. My book on conspiracy theories is here. And the last article I wrote for The New Republic is here. It's from March of 1998, so my appearances there, like the ancient Greek calendar, appear to be based on a 19-year cycle.

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 liber[...]

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 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 broad[...]

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[...]

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[...]

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 th[...]

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![...]