Sunday, February 2, 2020

Sunday Reading

Bernie Sanders, Front-Runner — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker.

Bernie Sanders, at seventy-eight, three months clear of a heart attack, has outlived obscurity to become the co-front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States. He is still thin and intent; to my eye, the hunch in his back has deepened. On a tour of Iowa last weekend, he wore a suit with an open-necked shirt, and his hair was on the tame side of its range. There are not many jokes in Sanders’s speeches right now, or stories, or people. He addressed thousands of people in Iowa and did not take a single question.

The better Sanders’s polls look, the more grave, even dour, he seems to grow. “Our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, our border systems, wastewater plants are crumbling,” he said, morosely, in Ames. His ballooning prospects were enough to excite his crowds; Sanders himself could deflate into a more familiar tone. Americans have to endure the “international embarrassment” of failing to guarantee health care. Did you want to “talk about vulgarity?” Consider the pharmaceutical executives, “a bunch of crooks.” Dispassionately, he went on to climate change. “They have underestimated the kinds of forest fires and wildfires that we will be seeing. All of you are aware that Australia, a beautiful country, is now burning.” The average American worker “is not making a nickel more” than he or she did fifty years ago, he said, and “you got three people on top owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society. You got that? Three people, a hundred and sixty million people.” Why, you wondered, would a person invest himself in such a sick place? The answer, carried by his young crowds and surrogates: for the kids.

It’s common to describe the present split within the Democratic Party as pitting its left against its center. A different way to put it is that the Party is split between its likely future and its current reality. An Emerson poll of Iowa this week found that forty-four per cent of Democrats under fifty support Sanders; ten per cent favor Elizabeth Warren, and no other candidate reached double digits. You’d think that a growing coalition of this size would be enticing to other Democrats, but Sanders has been endorsed by just one of his Senate colleagues, Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, and by seven members of the House. On Friday, he had the support of only one Iowa state legislator, while Amy Klobuchar had been endorsed by eighteen. “Nobody likes him,” Hillary Clinton says, of Sanders, in a new documentary just shown at Sundance, which seems true in a certain sense but beside the point. His voters no longer look quite so much like outsiders to the Party. They are beginning to seem like the future base. The former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has been talking up an analysis that he and some associates conducted, which found that Sanders’s proposals would add sixty trillion dollars in new spending programs, about twenty per cent of G.D.P. That is more than fifty times the new spending proposed by Klobuchar, ten times that proposed by Joe Biden, and nearly twice that proposed by Warren. According to Summers, Sanders’s program is nearly three times the size of the New Deal. Sanders might quibble with the numbers, but the vast gap between the scale of his own programs and those of his rivals suggests something about why his supporters have been so hard for other Democrats to pull away. “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders’s most prominent surrogate, told New York magazine last month. At stake in Sanders’s primary campaign is whether the transformation of the Democrats has already begun.

Last Saturday, at Ames City Auditorium, Sanders, travelling with Ocasio-Cortez and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, drew a crowd of more than a thousand people, which meant that two hundred of them had to watch the rally from a gym out back. Moore went out to address them. “You’re like me, this is the slacker crowd!” Moore said. “We don’t show up two hours early for anything!” But, whatever the Sanders campaign is, it isn’t for slackers. Sanders knew from the outset of the race that he was likely to raise more money than any of his rivals, and he has—more than ninety-six million dollars so far, according to the campaign. His campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is a former Harvard baseball player who trained in Harry Reid’s Senate office. His role in the Sanders operation is something like the one that Rahm Emanuel once played in the young Barack Obama’s: the figure in an idealistic campaign who understands something about power. Sanders’s campaign has a sharp slogan—“Not Me. Us.”—and branding that keeps pivoting, deftly, to match the news. In Iowa this past weekend, volunteers were wearing the latest buttons, which respond to questions about Sanders’s electability. They read, “Bernie Beats Trump.” Sanders’s platform is no less radical than it was in 2016, and his supporters’ siege mentality is undiminished. On Friday night, Rashida Tlaib, one of Sanders’s most outspoken surrogates, made headlines for booing a mention of Hillary Clinton at a campaign event. (Tlaib later apologized.) But Sanders’s movement, with all its bristling emotions, is also beginning to look like a winning one. At every level, there is an interesting tension, between powerlessness and power.

Early last Sunday morning, about a hundred campaign volunteers were waiting to meet Sanders at an office in a strip mall. As people milled around, with their winter gear still on, I tried to get a sense of what was different from 2016. The campaign operation was much bigger and better—everyone agreed on that. But mostly, they said, it was the same. “I honestly don’t think there’s a difference—I think it’s the same thing,” a woman named Celia Ringstrom told me. Sanders’s constancy, in the face of opportunism and hypocrisy from both Republicans and Democrats, was the point. “I mean, he’s been saying the same thing for forty years,” a man named Mike McElree told me. Sanders was on the good side of a contest between “democracy and barbarism,” an organizer told the group—with little, it seemed, between them.

Throughout the fall, a wise thing to say about the race was that Democrats in real life were not the same as they were on Twitter—that they were not as committed to socialism and social-justice claims, and not nearly so far to the left. Out in the real world, the line went, the Party was populated by a more sedate group—older, less educated, and less spikily progressive. They wanted a touch more public health insurance, a more balanced system of taxation, and a return to some remembered public decency—they were Biden people. In the week before the Iowa caucuses, though, the distinction between the Party on Twitter and the real world seemed to be collapsing. “I just don’t like rich people,” a woman named Sara Brizzi told me in Ankeny. “Maybe because of having grown up poor.” Brizzi, who was there with her husband and their five-year-old daughter, explained that she worked for a health-insurance company, and that, if Sanders won, and his Medicare for All plan was realized, she would probably lose her job. In 2016, pundits sometimes described the Sanders and Trump campaigns as reflecting a “symbolic” politics, in which policy positions mattered less than resisting the status quo. But the Sanders movement is profoundly material: its adherents want Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal, and tuition-free public colleges, and they have imagined these programs clearly enough that they have considered whether their own jobs might be affected. Brizzi had weighed the risks and benefits, and decided that she was with Sanders.

We are a long way from the start of this primary campaign, when a half-dozen candidates met with Obama, and went out to try to build a gentler bridge between the political needs of the present day—as the Party sees them—and the coalition of the future. The majority of those candidates—Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and Kamala Harris—are now out of the race, and two others, Pete Buttigieg and Warren, have seen their prospects weaken. In just a few weeks, Democrats may be left with a simple and stark choice between Biden and Sanders. In Iowa last week, the most powerful forces in the Democratic primary did not seem to be those massing behind Mike Bloomberg and Biden, but those affiliated with the Sanders bus speeding west across Iowa—the ninety-six million dollars and the multiracial coalition of the young behind it, who seemed to want what he was offering, and not, as he might have said, fifty cents on the dollar.

In icy, spare Perry, Iowa, last Sunday, Sanders’s audience was crammed into the town hall, and nearly ecstatic, but the more energetic that crowds are, the more focussed and concerned Sanders seems to become—an emotional contrarian. His mind seemed fixed on the short time until the caucuses, and the impeachment trial that would keep him in Washington, D.C. Sanders said, “I hope to come back—I don’t know if I will midweek. Maybe, maybe not.” A moment later, he seemed to decide—probably not—and slowed his cadence for a final message. Yes, this was about winning the nomination, he said, and yes, it was about beating Trump. “But we are asking even more of you. We are asking you to join us to transform this country.” The next event was in Fort Dodge. By the time I’d exited the building, the campaign bus was already gone. Sanders had said a few minutes earlier that he had enjoyed taking questions from Iowans through the campaign. “Today, we’re not going to have the time.”

Super Grift — Davide Zirin in The Nation on the massive grift taking place 29 miles north of here.

The Super Bowl is like prom for the 1 percent. When the big game comes to town, it’s accompanied by private jets, parties, and nonstop bottle service. That should be enough, but it never is. The bacchanalia also comes festooned with public funds for the NFL, an overwhelming police presence, and the removal of the poor. It’s a world of fun on our TVs, but it’s a wrecking ball for local communities.

This year the game is in Miami, and the scams are starting to seep into public consciousness. As the Miami Herald is reporting, the NFL booked 1 million dollars’ worth of rooms at the J.W. Marriott Marquis hotel and Aventura’s Turnberry resort for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers players and coaches—and sent the city the bill.

Even though the NFL is a gargantuan corporate operation and both teams are owned by billionaires, Miami (where 27 percent of children live below the poverty line) is on the hook for the hotel accommodations. This is just part of a $4 million welfare package with which the city has gifted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who makes 10 times that amount in yearly salary. That $4 million does not include the costs of the police and security presence required to host the game. Rodney Barreto, the chairman of Miami’s Host Committee, said to the Herald, “These are basically things we have to do to get them to come. If we’re not doing it, another city is.”

The police presence will be “an extraordinary deployment of law enforcement assets, even by recent standards, in keeping with heightened global tensions and fears of home-grown violence.” According to Reuters, Super Bowl LIV “is a so-called SEAR 1 event, affording it the highest level of federal resources, including explosive detection canine teams, cyber risk assessments and air security. Coordinated by the U.S. Secret Service, the security force includes operations by the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security.”

In addition, Miami police will lead “lead a massive ground operation with thousands of officers… on foot, horseback, in boats, and in the air.”

While the police roam the city and public dollars flow into the NFL’s coffers, the league is engaging in Kabuki theater charity: its spoonful of sugar to help the poison go down, showy presentations so it won’t look like a parasite. The league donated $100,000 to a homeless shelter that will house those displaced from Bayfront Park by the Super Bowl. This sounds nice, but the donation will actually help facilitate their removal from the streets so they’re not an eyesore, or worse, a reminder of the human costs of economic inequality. In addition, Dak Prescott, quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, is being praised for donating 100,000 bowls of Campbell’s Chunky Soup (Prescott’s sponsor) to local homeless shelters. This is the synthesis of commercialism and philanthropy that the NFL adores.

Yet there won’t only be police and soup. There will also be protest. Residents of the historic Miami Gardens neighborhood along with the Miami-Dade NAACP will be protesting on game day at the site of the Super Bowl, HardRock Stadium, in a fight to stop Formula 1 racing on public streets. The racing circuit has been invited to Miami Gardens by HardRock Stadium and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. F1 racing has been rejected by numerous communities because of environmental impact and traffic concerns. Ross doesn’t have such concerns about the residents in Miami Gardens, so they will be using the platform of the Super Bowl to fight back.

They won’t be alone. While private planes will be incoming in great numbers, airport workers in Miami will be protesting low wages and expensive health insurance costs with a Super Bowl week hunger strike. They are demonstrating against their employer, the airline catering subcontractor Sky Chefs. Sky Chefs works with, among other entities, American Airlines. Their Union, Unite Here, is currently in negotiations with Sky Chefs for a living wage. One worker, Ibis Boggiano, said to the Herald, “We are sacrificing our health so that they will hear us.”

The demonstration is called “Fast for Our Families.” On Monday, the workers were joined at a press conference by NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who said, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that all labor has dignity. Let’s remember, as hundreds of thousands of people descend onto Miami this week, that behind every Super Bowl party and celebration, there are men and women doing the work behind the scenes to be able to feed their families. The NFLPA is proud to stand in solidarity with airline catering this week, and shame on American Airlines for not taking action to make sure they are provided a living wage.”

The Super Bowl more than ever is a microcosm of this country. The super-wealthy will be oozing from one heavily guarded party to the next, while the hungry hope to be seen amid the flashing lights and heard above the ceaseless din.

Doonesbury — Overkill.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

See Him In The Funny Papers

You would think that the Trump campaign would do a little research.  Nah, just kidding.

Via the Guardian:

Donald Trump is a genocidal warlord hell bent on destroying half of existence in the universe. That’s not a criticism from the unhinged leftwing media, it’s apparently how the president and his team see him.

Shortly after the House brought two articles of impeachment against the president for his efforts seeking foreign interference to bolster his own political interests, the official Trump War Room re-election campaign Twitter account posted a video to social media that superimposed his face over that of the villainous Marvel comic book character Thanos.

In the scene from the movie Avengers: Endgame, Thanos snaps his fingers, attempting to destroy the diverse array of heroes from throughout the universe who’ve teamed up to defeat him. I am inevitable Trump/Thanos says.

“House Democrats can push their sham impeachment all they want,” the team tweeted. “President Trump’s re-election is inevitable.”

The video then cuts to footage of Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, and Jerry Nadler who magically vanish much like in the movie. Not the movie in question, mind you, the previous one, but these low-effort trolling operations from Trump’s social media team tend not to be heavy on consistency or logic.

Marvel Universe timeline discrepancies aside, the choice of this moment from the film was a strange one, as it’s seconds before Thanos realizes he’s about to be defeated.

[Spoiler alert] Thanos snaps his fingers and slowly dissolves like wind blowing a pile of charcoal ash.  End of story; he’s gone.  Poof.

The creator of Thanos responds to that Trump ad: “Seeing that pompous fool using my creation to stroke his infantile ego, it finally struck me that the leader of my country and the free world actually enjoys comparing himself to a mass murderer.”

I thought last week when they compared him to Rocky Balboa and unleashed a twitter-storm of mockery, they’d learned their lesson about hijacking cultural references, but obviously not.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sunday Reading

But Is It A Crime? — Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker on whether quid pro quo is a crime.

It’s long been clear that Presidents can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are not actual violations of federal criminal law. In an oft-cited passage from Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton wrote that impeachable offenses “are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” They involve “the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” This, at the moment, is the core of the case against Donald Trump for his interactions with the President of Ukraine—that he abused his power by using taxpayer dollars as a tool to extract information potentially damaging to a political rival.

But, if Trump’s behavior was an abuse of power, was it also a crime? The leading candidate for a relevant criminal statute is a familiar one in the federal courts, called the Hobbs Act. The law, named for the Alabama congressman who sponsored it, was enacted in 1946. It prohibits what’s known as “extortion under color of official right.” But what does that mean in plain English?

Samuel W. Buell, a professor at Duke Law School who is a former federal prosecutor and the author of “Capital Offenses: Business Crime and Punishment in America’s Corporate Age,” said, “The traditional way the Hobbs Act is used is when public officials solicit bribes. The idea is that there is an inherent power relationship between a public official and people who need things from that official. If the public official demands money, that’s seen as extortion, and thus a violation of the Hobbs Act.”

So what does that have to do with Trump and Ukraine? “The idea behind the case would be Trump conditioned the release of military aid to Ukraine on the President of Ukraine coming across with the dirt on the Biden family,” Buell said, adding, “He’s misusing official power to obtain things of value to him. That’s the heart of what the Hobbs Act is supposed to prohibit.” Buell draws an analogy to the Hobbs Act prosecution of Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois. “Lobbyists for a children’s hospital wanted Blagojevich to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates, which meant eight million dollars in revenue to the hospital,” Buell said. “But he put out the word through intermediaries that he would only do it if he got fifty thousand dollars in campaign contributions. That quid quo pro was a violation of the Hobbs Act. With Trump, the quid pro quo is taxpayer money in return for political dirt, but the idea is the same.”

There are problems with this theory, starting with the President’s constitutional prerogatives to conduct foreign policy under Article II. Trump, or his lawyers, could argue that such a case would criminalize the give-and-take of negotiation with foreign governments. International negotiations, by their very nature, involve exchanges of things of value. Quid pro quos are not only legal; they are the goal of most such interactions. The response to this argument would be that the terms of these sorts of negotiations must involve the national interest, not the political (or financial) fortunes of the President. Another problem relates to the question of mixed motives. If Trump also wanted to withhold aid to Ukraine because he thought that other countries were not kicking in a fair share of support—which was, clearly, a legal motive on his part—would that negate his improper motive on the Biden dirt? The proof issues for prosecutors would be daunting.

In some ways, the legal setting surrounding President Trump’s possible impeachment represents a kind of mirror image of the backdrop to President Clinton’s impeachment, in 1998. There, the core accusation was that Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Perjury is clearly a federal crime, but the question in Clinton’s case was whether his misconduct involved an abuse of Presidential powers. With Trump, his intervention in Ukraine appears to have been an abuse of his powers, but, conceivably, not a crime.

The debate about the criminality of the President’s behavior with regard to Ukraine, on some level, will always remain a theoretical matter. Under Department of Justice policy, sitting Presidents cannot be indicted; impeachment and removal must always come first. But the President and his supporters have already started making the argument that he should not be impeached because there is no proof of any underlying crime. The provisions of the Hobbs Act show that Trump may be wrong about that.

Hold Your Applause — Jeet Heer in The Nation on Twitter’s ban on political ads.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has learned that the fastest way to earn easy applause from progressives is to draw attention to the contrast between himself and Facebook head honcho Mark Zuckerberg. On Wednesday, Dorsey tweeted, “We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.” This decision was an implicit but pointed rebuke to Facebook, which has been mired in controversy over its policy of not fact-checking political ads.

By taking a stance against political ads, Dorsey positioned himself as the anti-Zuckerberg. He was hailed as such by progressives. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described Dorsey’s move as “a good call.” She added, “Not allowing for paid disinformation is one of the most basic, ethical decisions a company can make.” This sentiment was echoed by a leading centrist Democrat, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who tweeted, “Good. Your turn, Facebook.”

While Facebook deserves all the scorn heaped on it, Twitter’s policy only creates a new set of problems. Despite their different paths, the two social media giants are both setting themselves up as the police of political discourse.

Democrats believe, with ample reason, that Donald Trump will use Facebook’s laissez-faire rules to spread lies on social media in his bid for reelection. In a New York Times op-ed on Thursday, Aaron Sorkin, who scripted The Social Network (2010), a biographical film about Zuckerberg, claimed the Facebook policy allows “crazy lies” to be “pumped into the water supply that corrupt the most important decisions we make together. Lies that have a very real and incredibly dangerous effect on our elections and our lives and our children’s lives.” Currently, Facebook is running an ad that claims, falsely and with genuine absurdist brio, that Joe Biden, with the aim of protecting his son Hunter Biden, gave a billion dollars to a Ukrainian official.

Zuckerberg argues that such surrealist slanders have to be allowed in the interest of free expression. The underlying contention is that Facebook is a platform, not a publisher, so can’t be held liable for false information and advertising in the way a newspaper or magazine would. But this self-conceptualization of Facebook as a neutral platform is at odds with reality. It functions for countless users as a source of news and, in fact, has supplanted many publications. In effect, Facebook wants to have the advantages of being a publisher, including collecting ad revenue, without the responsibilities.

The invocation of free expression is all the more disingenuous since Facebook doesn’t hesitate to reject political ads on arbitrary grounds. To protest its purported policy, Adriel Hampton has registered to run for governor of California in 2022 and tried to place dishonest ads on Facebook, including one claiming South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham embraces the Green New Deal. Facebook has rejected Hampton’s ads, telling CNN, “This person has made clear he registered as a candidate to get around our policies, so his content, including ads, will continue to be eligible for third-party fact-checking.”

In making this decision, Facebook has made itself the arbiter of who is and isn’t a serious political candidate. The rule is that Facebook will give absolute free speech to politicians—but also gets to decide who is a politician. Facebook’s position is that it is acceptable to lie, as Trump does, to hold on to power—but not acceptable to lie in order to call attention to Facebook’s ad policy. In the guise of free speech absolutism, Facebook has arrogated to itself the right to define the parameters of political discourse.

The same problem of a private company’s policing the boundaries of political debate bedevils Twitter’s ostensibly different policy. As tech writer Will Oremus noted on OneZero, Twitter defines “political” in a way that will hamper labor unions, environmentalists, and activists of all sorts. Twitter defines political ads as “1/ Ads that refer to an election or a candidate, or 2/ Ads that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, healthcare, immigration, national security, taxes).”

The second category creates a problem. Under prevailing conventions, advocating for consumption is never political speech, merely commercial speech. Conversely, advocating for changes in consumption or other aspects of the economic system is always political. Under Twitter’s rules, General Motors could buy an ad promoting a gas-guzzling car, but Greta Thunberg couldn’t buy an ad advocating climate action.

“This perverse dynamic isn’t limited to climate change,” Oremus observes. “Presumably, tech companies will still be able to run ads touting their commitment to user privacy, but watchdog groups will be barred from running ads suggesting that we need better privacy regulations. Big corporations will be able to boast about how they treat workers, but unions won’t be able to push for prevailing wage laws or workplace safety laws.”

No less than Facebook, Twitter has assumed a role that shouldn’t be held by a private business: the right to set the boundaries of political debate. In both cases, the root problem is that the proper authority for making such decisions, the democratically governed state, has abdicated responsibility. Social media needs to be regulated, with rules about what sort of political ads it can take. Failure to regulate leaves that crucial task in the hands of businessmen like Zuckerberg and Dorsey, who aren’t up to the job.

Doonesbury — Buzzword! Buzzword!

Did you move your clocks back last night (if you were in DST)?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sunday Reading

Fake Out — Max Read in New York Magazine on how much of the internet is fake.

In late November, the Justice Department unsealed indictments against eight people accused of fleecing advertisers of $36 million in two of the largest digital ad-fraud operations ever uncovered. Digital advertisers tend to want two things: people to look at their ads and “premium” websites — i.e., established and legitimate publications — on which to host them.

The two schemes at issue in the case, dubbed Methbot and 3ve by the security researchers who found them, faked both. Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist. Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.” Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.

The metrics are fake.

Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures. In October, small advertisers filed suit against the social-media giant, accusing it of covering up, for a year, its significant overstatements of the time users spent watching videos on the platform (by 60 to 80 percent, Facebook says; by 150 to 900 percent, the plaintiffs say). According to an exhaustive list at MarketingLand, over the past two years Facebook has admitted to misreporting the reach of posts on Facebook Pages (in two different ways), the rate at which viewers complete ad videos, the average time spent reading its “Instant Articles,” the amount of referral traffic from Facebook to external websites, the number of views that videos received via Facebook’s mobile site, and the number of video views in Instant Articles.

Can we still trust the metrics? After the Inversion, what’s the point? Even when we put our faith in their accuracy, there’s something not quite real about them: My favorite statistic this year was Facebook’s claim that 75 million people watched at least a minute of Facebook Watch videos every day — though, as Facebook admitted, the 60 seconds in that one minute didn’t need to be watched consecutively. Real videos, real people, fake minutes.

The people are fake.

And maybe we shouldn’t even assume that the people are real. Over at YouTube, the business of buying and selling video views is “flourishing,” as the Times reminded readers with a lengthy investigation in August. The company says only “a tiny fraction” of its traffic is fake, but fake subscribers are enough of a problem that the site undertook a purge of “spam accounts” in mid-December. These days, the Times found, you can buy 5,000 YouTube views — 30 seconds of a video counts as a view — for as low as $15; oftentimes, customers are led to believe that the views they purchase come from real people. More likely, they come from bots. On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion looks like, find a video of a “click farm”: hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.

This is obviously not real human traffic. But what would real human traffic look like? The Inversion gives rise to some odd philosophical quandaries: If a Russian troll using a Brazilian man’s photograph to masquerade as an American Trump supporter watches a video on Facebook, is that view “real”? Not only do we have bots masquerading as humans and humans masquerading as other humans, but also sometimes humans masquerading as bots, pretending to be “artificial-intelligence personal assistants,” like Facebook’s “M,” in order to help tech companies appear to possess cutting-edge AI. We even have whatever CGI Instagram influencer Lil Miquela is: a fake human with a real body, a fake face, and real influence. Even humans who aren’t masquerading can contort themselves through layers of diminishing reality: The Atlantic reports that non-CGI human influencers are posting fake sponsored content — that is, content meant to look like content that is meant to look authentic, for free — to attract attention from brand reps, who, they hope, will pay them real money.

The businesses are fake.

The money is usually real. Not always — ask someone who enthusiastically got into cryptocurrency this time last year — but often enough to be an engine of the Inversion. If the money is real, why does anything else need to be? Earlier this year, the writer and artist Jenny Odell began to look into an Amazon reseller that had bought goods from other Amazon resellers and resold them, again on Amazon, at higher prices. Odell discovered an elaborate network of fake price-gouging and copyright-stealing businesses connected to the cultlike Evangelical church whose followers resurrected Newsweek in 2013 as a zombie search-engine-optimized spam farm. She visited a strange bookstore operated by the resellers in San Francisco and found a stunted concrete reproduction of the dazzlingly phony storefronts she’d encountered on Amazon, arranged haphazardly with best-selling books, plastic tchotchkes, and beauty products apparently bought from wholesalers. “At some point I began to feel like I was in a dream,” she wrote. “Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.”

The content is fake.

The only site that gives me that dizzying sensation of unreality as often as Amazon does is YouTube, which plays host to weeks’ worth of inverted, inhuman content. TV episodes that have been mirror-flipped to avoid copyright takedowns air next to huckster vloggers flogging merch who air next to anonymously produced videos that are ostensibly for children. An animated video of Spider-Man and Elsa from Frozen riding tractors is not, you know, not real: Some poor soul animated it and gave voice to its actors, and I have no doubt that some number (dozens? Hundreds? Millions? Sure, why not?) of kids have sat and watched it and found some mystifying, occult enjoyment in it. But it’s certainly not “official,” and it’s hard, watching it onscreen as an adult, to understand where it came from and what it means that the view count beneath it is continually ticking up.

These, at least, are mostly bootleg videos of popular fictional characters, i.e., counterfeit unreality. Counterfeit reality is still more difficult to find—for now. In January 2018, an anonymous Redditor created a relatively easy-to-use desktop-app implementation of “deepfakes,” the now-infamous technology that uses artificial-intelligence image processing to replace one face in a video with another — putting, say, a politician’s over a porn star’s. A recent academic paper from researchers at the graphics-card company Nvidia demonstrates a similar technique used to create images of computer-generated “human” faces that look shockingly like photographs of real people. (Next time Russians want to puppeteer a group of invented Americans on Facebook, they won’t even need to steal photos of real people.) Contrary to what you might expect, a world suffused with deepfakes and other artificially generated photographic images won’t be one in which “fake” images are routinely believed to be real, but one in which “real” images are routinely believed to be fake — simply because, in the wake of the Inversion, who’ll be able to tell the difference?

Our politics are fake.

Such a loss of any anchoring “reality” only makes us pine for it more. Our politics have been inverted along with everything else, suffused with a Gnostic sense that we’re being scammed and defrauded and lied to but that a “real truth” still lurks somewhere. Adolescents are deeply engaged by YouTube videos that promise to show the hard reality beneath the “scams” of feminism and diversity — a process they call “red-pilling” after the scene in The Matrix when the computer simulation falls away and reality appears. Political arguments now involve trading accusations of “virtue signaling” — the idea that liberals are faking their politics for social reward — against charges of being Russian bots. The only thing anyone can agree on is that everyone online is lying and fake.

We ourselves are fake.

Which, well. Everywhere I went online this year, I was asked to prove I’m a human. Can you retype this distorted word? Can you transcribe this house number? Can you select the images that contain a motorcycle? I found myself prostrate daily at the feet of robot bouncers, frantically showing off my highly developed pattern-matching skills — does a Vespa count as a motorcycle, even? — so I could get into nightclubs I’m not even sure I want to enter. Once inside, I was directed by dopamine-feedback loops to scroll well past any healthy point, manipulated by emotionally charged headlines and posts to click on things I didn’t care about, and harried and hectored and sweet-talked into arguments and purchases and relationships so algorithmically determined it was hard to describe them as real.

Where does that leave us? I’m not sure the solution is to seek out some pre-Inversion authenticity — to red-pill ourselves back to “reality.” What’s gone from the internet, after all, isn’t “truth,” but trust: the sense that the people and things we encounter are what they represent themselves to be. Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real. Fixing that would require cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world, but it’s our only choice. Otherwise we’ll all end up on the bot internet of fake people, fake clicks, fake sites, and fake computers, where the only real thing is the ads.

I’m real.  I don’t know about the rest of you, though.

Doonesbury — Journey to Nothingness.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Distancing Themselves

A number of companies have deals with the NRA.  These businesses such as insurance companies, banks, and car rental agencies that offered discounts to NRA members.  Now they are re-evaluating that linkage.

The NRA is not happy.

In a statement Saturday night, the NRA called the corporations’ decisions “a shameful display of political and civic cowardice.” 

“Let it be absolutely clear,” the statement continued. “The loss of a discount with neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission to stand and defend the individual freedoms that have always made America the greatest nation in the world.”

I’m pretty sure the individual freedoms we enjoy are not truly dependent on whether or not someone gets 5% off on renting a Toyota.

I don’t think it’s political or civic cowardice to look at a group and decide that the leadership, not necessarily the membership, is out of touch with the majority of the country and is not impressed with the vitriol that comes out of their mouths.  It’s just common sense.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Onslaught

Thank Dog that there’s TiVo, Netflix, and Microsoft Word or else I would have spent the entire Thanksgiving holiday convinced that the only way to find true happiness in life was to buy fancy chocolates, electric razors (and the hunky models that come with them) and luxury automobiles that plow through snow on the way to buy the perfect tree.  And what would the holidays be without a of bunch autotune variations on “The Carol of the Bells” and the return of the Hershey’s Kisses handbell chorus?

Newsflash: the war on Christmas is over.  It won.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday, June 30, 2017

How Is The New NRA Ad Any Different?

The NRA put out a recruitment ad in April that is suddenly going viral, and a lot a of people are concerned about its message that basically says the only way to prevent liberals from taking over is to buy a gun — lots of them — and backed it up with images that evoke Nazi propaganda against the Jews in the 1930’s.

This is nothing new from them.  In fact, compared to the rants of Wayne LaPierre, their usual mouthpiece, it’s fairly tame; instead of labeling the police “jackbooted thugs,” they just show pictures of them over the calm narration of Dana Loesch.  Perhaps that’s what’s bothering people; the NRA is trying the “chilling” approach.

Whatever.  It’s just a new ploy.  They’re still nothing more than the marketing arm of the gun industry.

Bonus Track: Charlie Pierce:

Look, free speech and all that. If Loesch and her unhinged boss want to sound like the Khmer Rouge, or like Franco, in front of the whole nation for the purposes of selling more weaponry, well, that’s a sad fact of life here in the United States of America. (Still waiting for them to get outraged at the police killing of law-abiding gun owner Philando Castile; Loesch showed more sympathy for Cliven Bundy’s cows.) But this kind of thing, from an organization with outsized political clout at all levels of the government, tends toward incitement. Also, in the immortal words of the late Charlie Skinner, “the clenched fist of truth” is some huckleberry bad writing.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Donald Who?

According to a reader at TPM, the Republican National Committee website is devoid of any mention of their presumptuous nominee.

Judging from their website, the RNC is acting as if Clinton is running unopposed.

It’s like they’re ashamed of him or something.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How To Fail In Five Words

The National Republican Senatorial Committee put out a tweet accusing Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) of “not standing up for veterans.”

Ms. Duckworth, who is the Democratic candidate for Senate against incumbent Mark Kirk, is a combat veteran of the Iraq war, where she lost both of her legs.

Duckworth Tweet 03-09-16

Yeah, “oops” doesn’t quite cover it.

The tweet was deleted almost immediately, but the thud echoes on.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rubio Running Against Trudeau?

Marco Rubio’s new ad goes abroad.

“It’s morning again in America,” a calm narrator says as an idyllic scene of a boat crossing a harbor plays in Marco Rubio’s latest ad — a darker riff on the classic Ronald Reagan ad.

Based on a quick internet search, though, the boat scene in the “Morning Again” ad appears to be Vancouver, Canada.

Maybe they meant to make it for Ted Cruz.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Short Takes

Iraq security forces launched another attack against ISIS.

Four former Blackwater guards were sentenced for their part in murdering people in Iraq.

A Tulsa, Oklahoma reserve deputy sheriff was charged with manslaughter in the shooting of black man over the weekend.

The Tennessee Supreme Court is halting capital punishment in the state for the rest of the year.

Good move: Indiana is hiring a P.R. firm to help restore its image.

All good things… The Tigers finally lose a game, 5-4, to the Pirates.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Real People

It turns out all the photos in the new “Republicans are people, too” ad campaign are all stock photos picked up from a website where you will find that one “Republican” also sells eyeglasses, payday loans, Christian counseling, and works as an attorney in Georgia.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

No Dress For Success

In what can only be described as a bizarre attempt on the part of a white patriarch mindset to come up with a clever way to appeal to women voters, Rick Scott’s campaign for re-election as governor of Florida has released an ad that is a take-off of a reality show called Say Yes to the Dress that fails on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start.

Capsule version: a bunch of women are all gathered together in a bridal shop helping a friend pick out her dress.  She wants to go with one called “The Rick Scott” which is “perfect!”  “”Rick Scott is becoming a trusted brand. He has new ideas that don’t break your budget.”  The bride’s mother disagrees; she wants to go with another presumably less attractive dress, “The Charlie Crist.”  Mom says, “It’s expensive and a little outdated, but I know best!”  In the end, of course, the bride overrules the mom.  Oh happy day.

The presumption is that all women are silly over wedding dresses, that voting for governor is the same as buying a dress, and that women can be persuaded that the only way to be happy in this world is by choosing the right dress made by the right man.  Even in the world of metaphors this doesn’t get off the ground.

This also goes to the issue of what Republican men think of women: first they insult them, then they patronize them.  At the risk of another metaphor, no wonder the women are leaving the GOP at the altar.

Friday, September 26, 2014

People Who Need People

A GOP advertising executive is launching a campaign to reassure America that Republicans not flesh-eating lizard people.

The site was created by Vinny Minchillo, an ad maker from Plano, Texas, who has also created a Facebook page and Twitter account for the campaign where he encourages his fellow Republicans to post photographs of themselves with signs displaying their supposedly un-Republican characteristics. Such photos, Minchillo hopes, will make it harder for people to demonize the GOP.


“People, I’m afraid, think that Republicans spend their days huddling over a boiling cauldron throwing in locks of Ronald Reagan’s hair. … We thought let’s get out there and show who Republicans really are: regular folks interested in making the world a better place.”

If you have to run ads telling the world that you’re not all a bunch of rich old white guys who hate gays, women, brown people, immigrants, and Muslims and that you actually have feelings, then your problem is bigger than something an ad campaign can solve.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Trailer Trash

Netflix has made a documentary called Mitt and released a trailer for it.  Emma Roller at Slate has the scoop.

And while it doesn’t contain any revelatory information about the Romney campaign, the trailer does show a side of the ever-composed candidate the electorate rarely saw in 2012.


We get a glimpse of the candidate his aides wish the public had gotten to see more—Romney ironing his suit, while he’s wearing it. Romney sleeping on the floor of a campaign bus. Romney cracking wise! “A recent poll said that 43 percent of Americans are not even sure who you are,” a newscaster intones on TV. “The flipping Mormon,” Romney drolly replies.

Yeah, I’ll put that up there on my to-watch list next to the “Adam Sandler Oscar-Nominations” and the Pauly Shore marathon.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

No Ads

This is a relief.

An appeals court has upheld a ban on political advertising on public broadcasting — reversing an earlier ruling by members of the same court.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, ruled against a public broadcaster seeking to have the ban overturned on 1st Amendment grounds. The broadcaster was also seeking to be able to run paid advertisements from for-profit companies.

Let’s not kid ourselves; most public radio stations have underwriter messages that border on being ads without actually having them.  While I understand the need for public radio stations to raise money any way they can, there’s something sacred about keeping it to the occasional fund-raiser (which some stations actually do very well, at least in terms of not being guilt-inducing and annoying).  Public radio is supposed to be commercial free, not just because it relieves the station of the task of blocking time to broadcast content in the middle of all the ads, but it gives them at least the illusion that they do operate, as my broadcasting history professor of forty years ago said, in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

I’m glad to see that public radio stations will not be able to get paid advertising or — thank dog — political ads.  It would just make them like every other station, and besides, you can never have too many NPR tote bags.

That brings me to a tangential point: Why aren’t there ads here on this blog?  I have nothing whatsoever against ads on a blog, and I read and even write for those that do have ads and depend on the revenue for their survival.  But when I set up Bark Bark Woof Woof ten years ago, I made a semi-conscious decision not to solicit advertisers or accept them if offered.  It wasn’t out of some sense of moral superiority — dog help me if I should ever feel like that — but, to paraphrase the immortal Groucho Marx, I would not want to associate with a business that would want to advertise here.  (I do get the occasional solicitation from a bot that says “Hey, I read your post on ___________; very insightful!  Can I guest-post about something?”  The giveaway is that the post they find so insightful is “A Little Night Music” or “Short Takes.”  Depending on my mood, I either delete without comment or reply that I charge $50,000 for a guest post, payable in advance with a certified check.  Oddly enough, I never hear back from them.)

Not taking ads also meant that there would be no doubt whatsoever in the mind of the reader that there’s no influence on me as to what I write about.  (I assume that is part of the logic behind keeping public radio and TV ad-free.  The cynic in me knows that underwriters could exert some behind-the-scenes influence on what might be aired on PBS or NPR, but at least there is the patina of neutrality.)  That’s not to imply that blogs with ads are under the thrall of their sponsors; quite often bloggers who are patrons of some blog ad services don’t have much of a choice of what ads appear on their sidebars.  That explains why you might see an ad for the NRA on a left-wing blog.  I’ve asked around, and every blogger whose site has ads has told me that they don’t give a flying rat’s ass as to what ad shows up as long as the check clears.  It’s not that they don’t care or that all they’re interested in is the money; it has to do with the simple fact that for them running a blog costs money and they depend on the revenue.

I understand completely and don’t begrudge them a penny of it.  I am in a position where my costs are very low and am fortunate to have a technical adviser and supporter who donates the hosting cost to the cause.  I’m grateful for the support and grateful to be able to provide this humble effort to the reader without ads.

Speaking of donations, yes, I have a Donate button on the sidebar.  It is there for those who feel they would like to make a donation, which would go to the maintenance of the site such as my monthly internet service.  And there’s also the link to the Bark Bark Woof Woof Shop where you can buy shirts and tchotchkes.  Both are guilt-free for you and labeled appropriately as Shameless Self-Promotion.  (FYI, in the ten years the shop has been open, I have yet to generate enough revenue to get Cafe Press to send me a check.)

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reading.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Annals of Asshattery

When it comes to exploiting a national tragedy, no one does it better than us.  From ThinkProgress, the attacks of September 11, 2001 gave ground to some to make a buck.

Unfortunately, it is likely also the eleventh anniversary of the first ads trying to exploit this tragic anniversary to drive up sales. Past examples of this genre include 9/11 Memorial Commemorative Chardonnay, a mattress company touting itself as the cure to sleeplessness caused by terrorist attacks, and a craft store advertising its 9/11 sale: “Avoid Crafting Emergencies & Stock Up Now!

Commemorations included a round of golf for $9.11, a sports mascot in army fatigues waving a flag, and a hotel chain offering free muffins at the hour of the attack.  I’m sure there’s a car dealer out there somewhere who advertised big savings during their 9/11 sale.

And, of course, there’s the religious fanatics who like provoking other religious fanatics to outrage so when they react they can point and say how outraged they are.

MULBERRY, Fla. — A Florida pastor was arrested Wednesday as he drove a pickup truck towing a large barbecue-style grill filled with kerosene-soaked Qurans to a park, where the pastor had said he was planning to burn 2,998 of the Muslim holy books— one for every victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Sheriff’s deputies in Polk County, Fla., arrested Pastor Terry Jones, 61, and his associate pastor, Marvin Sapp Jr., 44, each on a felony charge of unlawful conveyance of fuel. Jones had said he was heading to a nearby park in Mulberry to burn the Qurans on Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of the attacks. Sheriff’s officials said that Jones was also charged with unlawful open-carry of a firearm, a misdemeanor, and that Sapp faces a charge of having no valid registration for the trailer.

Both were being booked Wednesday night into the Polk County jail, according to Sheriff Grady Judd.

The expired license plate is your metaphor du jour.

H.L. Mencken famously noted that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.  We keep proving him right.