Ethan Elias Johnson is just some guy.
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Dear Strange Man on the Train,

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feministlisafrank:

At 11 o’clock at night, you moved across the train car to sit far too close to two girls about half your age so you could interrupt our conversation to tell us how pretty we are. We said thank you, have a good night, and went back to our conversation.

You interrupted us a second time to say that you didn’t want to bother us, but we needed to hear it, how pretty we are. We said cool, thanks, have a good night, and went back to our conversation.

You interrupted us a third time to say you wouldn’t say anything else, you didn’t want to bother us, you just had to let us know. We said have a good night, and went back to our conversation.

This seemed to perplex you. You came all that way across a train car to bestow upon us this life altering knowledge - the fact we were pretty - and all you got was a polite thank you? You grumbled about gratitude, about how you better not end up on facebook, were we putting you on facebook? Why was my friend looking at her phone? Was she putting you on facebook? All you’d done was tell us we were pretty.

At this point, my friend says, “Sir, we’re trying to have a conversation. Please don’t be disrespectful.”

This was when you got angry. Disrespectful? YOU? For taking the time out of your day to tell us we were pretty? Did we know we were pretty?

“Yes, we knew,” says my friend.

Well, that was the last straw. How dare we know we were pretty! Sure, you were allowed to tell us we were pretty, but we weren’t allowed to think it independently, without your permission! And if we had somehow already known - perhaps some other strange man had informed us earlier in the day - we certainly weren’t allowed to SAY it! Where did we get off, having confidence in ourselves? You wanted us to know we were pretty, sure, but only as a reward for good behavior. We were pretty when you gifted it upon us with your words, and not a moment before! You raged for a minute about how horrible we were for saying we thought we were pretty, how awful we turned out to be.

I took a page out of your book and interrupted you. “Sir, you said you wouldn’t say anything else, and then you kept talking,” I said. “You complimented us, we said thank you, and we don’t owe you anything else. It’s late, you’re a stranger, and I don’t want to talk to you. We’ve tried to disengage multiple times but you keep bothering us.”

At this point, our train pulled into the next stop. My friend suggested we leave, so we got up and went to the door.

Seeing your last chance, you lashed out with the killing blow. “I was wrong!” you shouted at us as we left, “You’re ugly! You’re both REALLY UGLY!”

Fortunately, since our worth as human beings is in no way dependent upon how physically attractive you find us, my friend and I were unharmed and continued on with our night. She walked home; I switched to the next train car and sat down.

So, strange man, I know you’re confused. I don’t know if you’ll think about anything I said to you, but I hope you do learn this: when you give someone something - a gift, a compliment, whatever - with stringent stipulations about how they respond to it, you are not giving anything. You are setting a trap. It is not as nice as you think it is.

But you’ll be happy to know that when I sat down in the next car, a strange man several seats over called, “Hey, pretty girl. Nice guitar. How was your concert?”

“Thanks. Good,” I said, then looked away and put on my headphones, the universal sign for ‘I’d like to be left alone.’

“Wow. Fine. Whatever. Fucking bitch,” he said.

Fucking creepers. May I ask how feminism or anything similar would actually have prevented this from happening? This ya already socially unacceptable.

Men - because to be clear, I called them ‘strange men’ because they were strangers to me, not because there was anything abnormal about them - act this way because they are raised in a culture that lets them believe their time and opinions are more important than the time and opinions of women, and that as a consequence, they are owed women’s attention. They are socialized to believe women should be grateful to them for their attention, and that they are being denied something rightfully theirs when women are not.

Raising someone with feminism, the idea that all sexes/genders are equals and thus no party is beholden to or more important than another, would have prevented this by not allowing men to grow up expecting ‘rights’ that are not actually theirs. You say this is socially unacceptable, but there were 20+ people on that train who actively watched us being harassed and did not say a word. It is socially unacceptable, but this kind of thing happens to me and many other women multiple times a week, with often more traumatic results.

So, yes, I believe more feminism would prevent sexist moments like this. Also, water is wet, the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, and cheese is addictive.

This was not sexist, this was an awkward man, possibly trying to get a positive reaction versus a neutral or negative one that was displayed, based off of the context you showed. Awful that he interrupted your conversation, and wanted to be engaging socially, whatever his reasons that motivated him. Generalizations of a certain biological sex does not help society as a whole, and the ideal of feminism does not help. The people who “actively watched” you be verbally harassed possibly believed you were perfectly capable in handle yourselves. You’d probably be more upset if there was another man that told the strange man to back off, due to him possibly being “chivalrous”.
I find the whole event to be amusing for the awkwardness of the conversation and would only had stepped in had he’d been physical. I really don’t see how this event was “sexist”, and only say that you’re really reaching.

Well I wouldn’t see any part of this amusing, more times then I can count on my hands I’ve been"complemented" and met with really awful responses when I don’t praise someone endlessly… Yes some guys are awkward which is unfortunately bundled up it these kind of interaction. But the problem is when people are instantly hostile when you don’t drop everything and pretend it’s the first time someone’s every noticed you let alone called you pretty!
Imagine it’s so women saying this to a guy, if she reacted the same way she’d get called out on being a bitch or what have you…
I’m in a shit mood some my writing is terrible but here are two examples;

At the shops waiting for people doing my own thing and someone calls me pretty. I’m preoccupied but I look up and say oh thank you and go back to what I was doing only to have them mutter that they did me a favour and it’d pay to not be so emo. Like sorry I’m on the phone and didn’t drop everything…
Perhaps I could say “I was at fault for not engaging in further conversation”

And more recently on a train had a dude compliment my bow to which I replied the same way “oh thanks” and he wished me a good day as I did to him. That was it. Same response from me but boy it’s nice to not feel like I’m a bad person for not saying how amazing and nice they are for complementing me??

Ugh I doubt any of this makes sense or helps but I really can’t look at the situations I’ve been put into and find them funny…..

Thanks for the response and the perspective, and yes they are two different incidents that happened.
I find that these compliment baiters to be funny, because they just want attention too, but aren’t observant of the environment they’re in.
The situation is uncomfortable, sure, especially when they resort to negative attention seeking behaviors, but for her to contort it to a sexist deposition is something that I’m confused about and don’t agree with at all. These people were probably not taught the art of communication and observation. They don’t need feminism for that. They need to experience a social life.

It’s got nothing to do with sex. There is a pervasive psychological thread where men chase and women are chased. It’s not always in a sexual way. It’s a power thing. These awkward men don’t seem to approach other men. Why? Because those men might chase back. A person could get hurt that way. But, women, our subconscious tells us, do not fight or chase.

Might a social life help? Depends on the crowd. A crowd of people who object to such behavior and socially reward the opposite might nip those shenanigans in the bud. But, those shenanigans might never start if a child of any gender is taught, starting at a young age, that nobody owes you any reaction.

I’m awkward myself. Right now, I’m out of my comfort zone for the next three days and I don’t know what to do. But my first instinct after years of being told to be nice and stay passive and quiet is to hold back and remain silent. Why? Because girls don’t approach. They do not engage. They are engaged. I live in terror that someone will take offense to my trying to stick up for my personal freedom and space and attack me. It happens everyday and in every country. Would a social life help? Maybe. But that assumes I’m socializing with people who won’t push or get aggressive.

And there is where feminism comes in. It doesn’t start as sex, it might not end as sex. It begins with how we’re taught power and behavior. It ends with either what happened above or the opposite.

^ Yep, this.

Also, an interesting intellectual disconnect: a guy can experience this situation and “find the compliment baiters amusing,” whereas most women in this situation have been raised to be careful and behave so they won’t get raped or murdered by a stranger, told all the ways to not make themselves a potential victim, consumed media that is just a repetition of stories of women being hurt for essentially existing. It’s not particularly funny or amusing to me since every time it happens, I have to wonder, is this the man who’s going to snap and end my life?

But, fine, whatever, let’s say for a minute that these are just a couple of awkward guys who don’t know how to interact with women and are handling it badly. Let’s say they’re men who have been brought up consuming that same media, where the man has to be in charge, rugged, emotionally controlled, suave, and the initiator of all potential romantic interactions. Let’s say that they fall short in some way and can’t emulate the ideal male image perpetuated by society, so they can’t figure out how to interact in social situations, so they just begin to experience a deep level of frustration and despair that they can’t express to anyone, since men are supposed to be tough and unemotional. Let’s say this emotional cycle continues until it results in them lashing out at strange women because they can’t figure out how to get their attention, even though it is the one thing they want and feel they deserve.

You know what would prevent men feeling like this? Feminism. Because our society puts just as much pressure on men to fill sometimes unachievable roles as it does women, and a society where we were equally allowed to fill a variety of roles regardless of race/gender/sexuality/etc would not hold that same pressure.

If this had been a woman near our age, this never would have happened because womxn generally don’t do this shit to each other. 

I think the thing that amazes me the most about the people still complaining about this three years after I posted it is that they have this idea that every time a man is within fifteen feet of a woman, that woman starts screaming harassment at them. I don’t assume every man that talks to me is hitting on me, which is why this blog is not bloated with every conversation I have ever had with a man; I assume the ones who are actively hitting on me and also not taking social cues or outright “no”s as an answer are hitting on me, and I call them out when they feel genuinely threatening, like above. It’s truly amazing (in the most sarcastic tone you can read that in) that people can read a written recounting of a situation and be completely confident that they know significantly more than anyone present how the situation went down and should have been handled.

If you compliment someone, you are not owed any response more than “thank you.” You are not EVEN owed a “thank you.”

You are not entitled to anyone’s attention.

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Joe Biden Is Hillary Clinton 2.0 — Democrats Would Be Mad to Nominate Him

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Former Vice President Joe Biden waves after speaking at the International Association of Firefighters at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, amid growing expectations he'll soon announce he's running for president. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Former Vice President Joe Biden waves after speaking at the International Association of Firefighters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2019.

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

“The definition of insanity,” Einstein didn’t say, “is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Have the Democrats gone mad? Are they really planning on putting up the same type of candidate against Donald Trump in 2020 that they put up against him in 2016? Is the party bent on nominating Hillary 2.0?

How else to describe Joe Biden, the former vice president and ex-senator from Delaware, who is leading in the polls and has hinted that he’d reveal whether he’s running for president in “a few weeks” and might select a running mate early in the process?

Forget, for a moment, his “blue-collar-uncle-at-the-end-of-the-bar persona.” Ignore also his recent, and ridiculous, claim to have the “most progressive record of anybody” running for president. Consider, instead, the sheer number of similarities he seems to have with the vanquished Democratic presidential candidate of 2016.

Iraq War supporter? Check. Clinton was pilloried by the left and the right alike as a wild-eyed hawk; her vote in favor of the Iraq invasion haunted both her 2008 and 2016 campaigns. In fact, a study by two academics in 2017 found a “significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump” and suggested that if Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin “had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate,” they could have “sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.”

Let’s be clear: If he runs, Biden will be the only candidate — out of up to 20 Democrats running for the nomination — to have voted for the Iraq War. As the influential chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Relations Committee in the run-up to the invasion, Biden (falsely) claimed the United States had “no choice but to eliminate the threat” from Saddam Hussein. A former U.N. weapons inspector even accused the then-senator of running a “sham” committee hearing that provided “political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq.”

Friend of Wall Street? Check. Clinton had a Goldman Sachs problem; Biden has an MBNA problem. Headquartered in his home state of Delaware, the credit card giant MBNA was his biggest donor when he served in the Senate. In 2005, Biden threw his weight behind a bankruptcy bill, signed into law by President George W. Bush, that shamefully protected credit card companies at the expense of borrowers.

National Review later dubbed Biden “the senator from MBNA”. The then-senator’s son Hunter even went to work for the company while his father was pushing through the bankruptcy bill. There’s word for that, right? Trumpian.

As in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders will be bashing the banks again in the run-up to 2020; as in 2016, his fellow frontrunner will be defending them. “I love Bernie, but I’m not Bernie Sanders,” Biden confirmed in a speech in May 2018. “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.”

Champion of mass incarceration? Check. Clinton took flak for supporting the 1994 crime bill, which helped push up the U.S. prison population, introduced new federal death penalty crimes, and hugely exacerbated racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And Biden? Well, he wrote the damn thing!

Remember how Clinton’s loathsome defense of the 1994 bill came back to bite her in 2016? “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators.’ … We have to bring them to heel.”

You don’t think Biden’s decadeslong “tough on crime” rhetoric will hurt him too? Especially with minority voters? “One of my objectives, quite frankly, is to lock Willie Horton up in jail,” he declared in 1990, as Senate Judiciary Committee chair.

“I don’t care why someone is a malefactor in society,” Biden said in 1993, as he mocked “wacko Democrats” for trying to understand the causes of crime. “I don’t care why someone is antisocial. I don’t care why they’ve become a sociopath. We have an obligation to cordon them off from the rest of society.”

“My greatest accomplishment is the 1994 Crime Bill,” he told the National Sheriffs’ Association in 2007.

Millions of black voters refused to turn out for Clinton in 2016. Why wouldn’t they do the same in response to a Biden candidacy in 2020?

Establishment-friendly? Check. The Clintons arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1993; Clinton then spent eight years in the Senate and four years in Barack Obama’s cabinet. Biden arrived in D.C. in 1973; he spent 36 years in the Senate and eight years in Obama’s cabinet.

When Trump tries to run again as an anti-establishment outsider in 2020, what will Biden’s response be? And will grassroots Democrats rally behind a candidate who befriended and defended notorious segregationist Strom Thurmond, and whose allies brag that he is a “a guy who actually gets along with Mitch McConnell and a number of other Republicans”? This is supposed to be a selling point?

Gaffe-prone? Check. You think the “deplorables” line from Clinton was bad? Did you cringe at “Pokemon Go to the polls”? The former vice president has a long list of excruciating “Bidenisms.” Remember when he asked a state senator in a wheelchair to “stand up … let ’em see ya”? Or when he told a largely African-American audience that Mitt Romney was “going to put y’all back in chains”? Or when he said, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent”? I could go on. And on. And on. (And don’t even get me started on the “Creepy Joe Biden” videos …)

Why nominate a candidate for president who’ll make Trump look … what’s the word … normal?

Loser? Check. Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 2016, at the second attempt, having been defeated by Obama eight years earlier. For Biden, it would have to be third-time lucky. His supporters might not want you to remember this, but he has run for president twice already: In 1987, he quit the Democratic primary race within three months of announcing after being accused of plagiarizing parts of his speech. In 2008, he dropped out after coming fifth in the Iowa caucus, winning less than 1 percent of the vote.

Yet now, it seems, he and his supporters believe this serial loser is the only Democratic candidate able to win back white-working class voters from Trump and triumph in the 2020 presidential election?

Where is the actual evidence for this ludicrous claim? For a start, a recent poll found that “every potential Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election — announced and unannounced — would beat President Trump in a head-to-head contest.” (As Biden himself conceded to The Intercept in December, “I think anybody can beat him.”)

The bigger issue, however, is that there is no question for the Democrats in 2020 to which Biden is the answer. Have they really learned no lessons from three years ago?

The post Joe Biden Is Hillary Clinton 2.0 — Democrats Would Be Mad to Nominate Him appeared first on The Intercept.

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imagine someone running that technology on you. you'd be like, damn. damn, found me out. anyway see you never

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February 25th, 2019: DINOSAUR COMICS BOOK ARE ON SUPERSALE! THIS NEVER HAPPENS

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239 days ago
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[rss title] imagine someone running that technology on you. you'd be like, damn. damn, found me out. anyway see you never

[img title] that millionth-and-one time, though: APOLOGY CITY

[mailto subject] okay i ran the numbers and it turns out the secret to fame is to... be best friends with ed sullivan in the early 1960s

Donald Trump Responds to Beto O’Rourke’s March for Truth in El Paso With Flagrant Lies

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In El Paso, Texas on Monday night, Donald Trump responded to the March for Truth — a protest against his false claims about the city led by its most famous resident, Beto O’Rourke — by lying about it.

In remarks transmitted live and uncorrected by the news networks, Trump claimed that a crowd of about 13,000 supporters at his rally in the city numbered, “let’s say 35,000 people,” while the march addressed by O’Rourke had drawn, at most, “300 people.” El Paso’s police department estimated that the number of protesters was in fact between 10,000 and 15,000.

While skeptics following events online could find out the truth, networks like ABC shared Trump’s entirely false claims on social networks with no indication that they were untrue, suggesting that a core error in coverage of his 2016 campaign looks set to be repeated for 2020.

“He has long since figured out something important, and perhaps dangerous,” Ray Suarez, the veteran broadcaster, observed on Twitter about Trump’s willingness to lie. “He knows it doesn’t really matter if he tells the truth about the O’Rourke crowd, or his own. By tomorrow morning, who’s going to care beyond those who already care? He may gain little, but loses nothing.”

Video of O’Rourke’s 22-minute speech, shared by the potential candidate for the presidency, showed that thousands of marchers had indeed crowded onto a baseball diamond across from the arena where the president’s rally took place, to hear their former Congressman call out Trump’s lies about the city’s crime rate.

Far from being a city saved from violent crime only by the construction of a border wall in 2008, as Trump had falsely claimed during his State of the Union speech, O’Rourke stressed that El Paso’s crime rate had already plummeted before the partial barrier was constructed.

As Bob Moore and Carlos Sanchez reported for The Texas Tribune, Trump opened his speech, beneath banners reading “Finish the Wall,” with the blatant lie that construction of a border wall along the Texas-Mexico border was underway. “I don’t know if you heard, right, today we started a big beautiful wall right on the Rio Grande, right smack on the Rio Grande,” Trump claimed, falsely. When the president’s supporters launched into the familiar chant, “Build the Wall!” the former real estate developer invited them to pretend along with him: “You mean, ‘Finish the Wall.'”

Trump later continued his long-running war on observable reality by claiming, without evidence, that El Paso’s Republican mayor had manipulated the FBI statistics that showed a sharp drop in violent crime before the construction of the barrier.

The president’s attempt to clear a path for his lies by attacking the media once again incited his supporters to such hostility that one even attacked a cameraman for the BBC.

Trump supporters, desperate to combat credible reports from journalists on the ground, and the crowd-size estimates of local fire and police officials, resorted to circulating screenshots of the protest taken nearly an hour after O’Rourke’s speech ended.

Trump’s attempt to gaslight the nation about his popularity in El Paso relative to that of O’Rourke was clearly pre-planned, since his lie about the rival protest march drawing only a few hundred people was promoted before his speech by both his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and his son, Donald Trump Jr. — who introduced his father by falsely claiming that “about 200 people” were at the “Beto rally,” and then posted a photograph of what he said was a crowd of 35,000 waiting for the president to speak.

Even before leaving the White House for El Paso, Trump had hinted that his decision to hold his first campaign rally of the year in O’Rourke’s hometown on the Mexican border was at least partly an attempt to show up a potential rival. Hours before the rally, Trump bragged, “We have a line that is very long already… And I understand our competitor’s got a line too, but it’s a tiny little line.”

The post Donald Trump Responds to Beto O’Rourke’s March for Truth in El Paso With Flagrant Lies appeared first on The Intercept.

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Told you so

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The Splinters Of Our Discontent: A Review Of Network Propaganda

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Years before most of us thought Donald Trump would have a shot at the presidency, the Cato Institute's Julian Sanchez put a name on a problem he saw in American conservative intellectual culture. Sanchez called it "epistemic closure," and he framed the problem this way:

"One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they're liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile."

Sanchez's comments didn't trigger any kind of real schism in conservative or libertarian circles. Sure, there was some heated debate among conservatives, and a few conservative commentators, like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and the National Review's Jim Manzi, acknowledged that there might be some merit to Sanchez's critique. But for most people, this argument among conservatives about epistemic closure hardly counted as serious news.

But the publication last fall of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts—more than eight years after the original "epistemic closure" debate erupted—ought to make the issue hot again. This long, complex, yet readable study of the American media ecosystem in the run-up to the 2016 election (as well as the year afterwards) demonstrates that the epistemic-closure problem has generated what the authors call an "epistemic crisis" for Americans in general. The book also shows that our efforts to understand current political division and disruptions simplistically—either in terms of negligent and arrogant platforms like Facebook, or in terms of Bond-villain malefactors like Cambridge Analytica or Russia's Internet Research Agency—are missing the forest for the trees. It's not that the social media platforms are wholly innocent, and it's not that the would-be warpers of voter behavior did nothing wrong (or had no effect). But the seeds of the unexpected outcomes in the 2016 U.S. elections, Network Propaganda argues, were planted decades earlier, with the rise of a right-wing media ecosystem that valued loyalty and confirmation of conservative (or "conservative") values and narratives over truth.

Now, if you're a conservative, you may be reading this broad characterization of Network Propaganda as an attack on conservatism itself. Here are four reasons you shouldn't fall into that trap! First, nothing in this book challenges what might be called core conservative values (at least as they have been understood for most of the last 100 years or so). Those values typically have included favoring limited government over expansive government, preferring economic growth and rights to property over promoting equity and equality for their own sake, supporting business flexibility over labor and governmental demands, committing to certain approaches to tax policy, and so forth. Nothing in Network Propaganda is a criticism of substantive conservative values like these, or even of what may increasingly be taken as "conservative" stances in the Trump era (nationalism or protectionism or opposition to immigration, say). The book doesn't take a position on traditional liberal or progressive political stances either.

Second, nothing in the book discounts the indisputable fact that individuals and media entities on the left, and even in the center, have their own sins and excesses to account for. In fact, the more damning media criticisms in the book are aimed squarely at the more traditional journalistic institutions that made themselves more vulnerable to disinformation and distorted narratives in the name of "objectivity." Where right-wing media set out to reinforce conservative identity and narratives—doing, in fact, what they more or less always promised they were going to do—the institutional press of the left and the center frequently let their superficial commitment to objectivity result in the amplification of disinformation and distortions.

Third, there are philosophical currents on the left as well as the right that call the whole notion of objective facts and truth into question—that consider all questions of fact to represent political judgments rather than anything that might be called "factual" or "truthful." As the authors put it, reform of our media ecosystems "will have to overcome not only right-wing propaganda, but also decades of left-wing criticism of objectivity and truth-seeking institutions." Dedication to truth-seeking is, or ought to be, a transpartisan value.

Which leads us to the fourth reason conservatives should pay attention to Network Propaganda, which is the biggest one. The progress of knowledge, and of problem-solving in the real world, requires us, regardless of political preferences and philosophical approaches, to come together in recognizing the value of facts. Consider: if progressives had cocooned themselves in a media ecosystem that had cut itself from the facts—that valued tribal loyalty and shared identity over mere factual accuracy—conservatives and centrists would be justified in pointing out not merely that the left's media were unmoored but also that its insistence on doctrinal purity in the face of factual disproof was positively destructive.

But the massive dataset and analyses offered by Benkler, Faris, and Roberts in Network Propaganda demonstrate persuasively that the converse distortion has happened. Specifically, the authors took about four million online stories regarding the 2016 election or national politics generally and analyzed them through Media Cloud, a joint technological project developed by Harvard's Berkman Klein Center and MIT's Center for Civil Media over the course of the last decade. Media Cloud enabled the authors to study not only where the stories originate but also how they were linked and propagated, and how the various entities in our larger media ecosystem link to one another. The Media Cloud analytical system made it possible to study news sites, including the website versions of newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with the more politically focused websites on the left and right, like Daily Kos and Breitbart. The system also enabled the authors to study how the stories were retweeted and shared on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, as well as how, in particular instances, television coverage supplemented or amplified online stories.

You might expect that any study of such a large dataset would show symmetrical patterns of polarization during the pre-election to post-election period the authors studied (basically, 2015 through 2017). It was, after all, an election period, which is typically a time of increased partisanship. You might also expect, given the increasing presence of social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in American public life, that the new platforms themselves, just by their very existence and popularity, shaped public opinion in new ways. And you might expect, given the now-indisputable fact that Russian "active measures" were trying to influence the American electorate in certain ways, to see clear proof either that the Russians succeeded in their disinformation/propaganda efforts (or that they failed).

Yet Network Propaganda, instantly a necessary text for those of us who study media ecologies, shows that the data point to different conclusions. The authors' Media Cloud analyses (frequently represented visually in colorful graphs as well as verbally in tables and in the text of the book itself) point to different conclusions altogether. As Benkler characterizes the team's findings in the Boston Review:

"The data was not what we expected. There were periods during the research when we were just working on identifying—as opposed to assessing—the impact of Russians, and during those times, I thought it might really have been the Russians. But as we analyzed these millions of stories, looking both at producers and consumers, a pattern repeated again and again that had more to do with the traditional media than the Internet."

That traditional media institutions are seriously culpable for the spread of disinformation is counterintuitive. The authors begin Network Propaganda by observing what most of us also observed—the rise of what briefly was called "fake news" before that term was transmuted by President Trump into shorthand for his critics. But Benkler at al. also note that that the latter half of the 20th century, mainstream journalistic institutions, informed by a wave of professionalization that dates back approximately to the founding of the Columbia University journalism school, historically had been able to overcome most of the fact-free calumnies and conspiracy theories through their commitment to objectivity and fact-checking. Yet mainstream journalism failed the culture in 2016, and it's important for the journals and the journalists to come to terms with why. But doing so means investigating how stories from the fringes interacted with the mainstream.

The fringe stories had weird staying power; in the period centering on the 2016 election, a lot of the stories that were just plain crazy—from the absurd narrative that was "Pizzagate" to claims that Jeb Bush had "close Nazi ties" (Alex Jones played a role in both of these narratives)--persistently resurfaced in the way citizens talked about the election. To the Network Propaganda authors, it became clear that in recent years something new has emerged—namely, a variety of disinformation that seems, weedlike, to survive the most assiduous fact-checkers and persist in resurfacing in the public mind.

How did this emergence happen, and should we blame the internet? Certainly this phenomenon didn't manifest in any way predicted by either the more optimistic pundits at the internet's beginnings or the backlash pessimists who followed. The optimists had believed that increased democratic access to mass media might give rise to a wave of citizen journalists who supplemented and ultimately complemented institutional journalism, leading both to more accuracy in reporting and more citizen engagement. The pessimists predicted "information cocoons" (Cass Sunstein's term) and "filter bubbles" (Eli Pariser's term) punctuated to some extent by quarrelsomeness because online media can act as disinhibition to bad behavior.

Yes, to some extent, the optimists and the pessimists both found confirmation of their predictions, but what they didn't expect, and what few if any seem to have predicted, was the marked asymmetry of how the predictions played in the 2015-2017 period with regard to the 2016 election processes and their outcome. As the authors put it, "[t]he consistent pattern that emerges from our data is that, both during the highly divisive election campaign and even more so during the first year of the Trump presidency, there is no left-right division, but rather a division between the right and the rest of the media ecosystem. The right wing of the media ecosystem behaves precisely as the echo-chamber models predict—exhibiting high insularity, susceptibility to information cascades, rumor and conspiracy theory, and drift toward more extreme versions of itself. The rest of the media ecosystem, however, operates as an interconnected network anchored by organizations, both for profit and nonprofit, that adhere to professional journalistic norms."

As a result, this period saw the appearance of disinformation narratives that targeted Trump and his primary opponents as well as Hillary Clinton, but the narratives that got more play, not just in right-wing outlets but ultimately in the traditional journalistic outlets at well, were the ones that centered on Clinton. This happened even when there were fewer available facts supporting the anti-Clinton narratives and (occasionally) more facts supporting the anti-Trump narratives. The explanation for the anti-Clinton narratives' longevity in the news cycle, the data show, is the focus of the right-wing media ecology on the two focal media nodes of Fox News and Breitbart. At times during this period, Breitbart took the lead as an influencer from Fox News, which eventually responded by repositioning itself after Trump's nomination as a solid Trump booster.

In contrast, left-wing media had no single outlet that defined orthodoxy for progressives. Instead, left-of-center outlets worked within the larger sphere of traditional media, and, because they were competing for the rest of the audience that had not committed itself to the Fox/Breitbart ecosystem, were constrained to adhere, mostly, to facts that were confirmable by traditional media institutions associated with the center-left (the New York Times and the Washington Post, say) as well as with the center-right (e.g., the Wall Street Journal). Basically, even if you were an agenda-driven left-oriented publication or online outlet, your dependence on reaching the mainstream for your audience meant that, you couldn't get away with just making stuff up, or with laundering far-left conspiracy theories from more marginal sources.

Network Propaganda's data regarding the right-wing media ecosystem—that it's insular, prefers confirmation of identity and loyalty rather than self-correction, demonizes perceived opponents, and resists disconfirmation of its favored narratives—map well to social-science political-communication theorists Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Capella's 2008 book, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh And The Rise Of Conservative Media. In that book, Jamieson and Capella outlined how, as they put it, "these conservative media create a self-protective enclave hospitable to conservative beliefs." As a consequence, they write:

"[t]his safe haven reinforces conservative values and dispositions, holds Republican candidates and leaders accountable to conservative ideals, tightens their audience's ties to the Republican Party, and distances listeners, readers, and viewers from 'liberals," in general, and Democrats, in particular. It also enwraps them in a world in which facts supportive of Democratic claims are contested and those consistent with conservative ones championed."

The data analyzed by Benkler et al. in Network Propaganda support Jamieson's and Capella's conclusions from more than a decade ago. Moreover, Benkler et al. argue that the key factors in the promotion of disinformation were not "clickbait fabricators" (who generate eye-grabbing headlines to generate revenue), or Russian "active measures," or the corrosive effects of the (relatively) new social-media platforms Facebook and Twitter. The authors are aware that in making this argument they're swimming against the tide:

"Fake news entrepreneurs, Russians, the Facebook algorithm, and online echo chambers provide normatively unproblematic, nonpartisan explanations to the current epistemic crisis. For all of these actors, the strong emphasis on technology suggests a novel challenge that our normal systems do not know how to handle but that can be addressed in a nonpartisan manner. Moreover, focusing on 'fake news' from foreign sources and on Russian efforts to intervene places the blame onto foreigners with no legitimate stake in our democracy. Both liberal political theory and professional journalism consistently seek neutral justifications for democratic institutions, so visibly nonpartisan explanations such as these have enormous attraction."

Nevertheless, Network Propaganda argues, the nonpartisan explanations are inconsistent with what the data show, which the authors characterize as "a radicalization of roughly a third of the American media system." (It isn't "polarization," since the data don't show any symmetry between left and right "poles.") The authors argue that "[n]o fact emerges more clearly from our analysis of how four million political stories were linked, tweeted, and shared over a three-year period than that there is no symmetry in the architecture and dynamics of communications within the right-wing media ecosystem and outside of it." In addition, they write, "we have observed repeated public humiliation and vicious disinformation campaigns mounted by the leading sites in this sphere against individuals who were the core pillars of Republican identity a mere decade earlier." Those campaigns against Republican stalwarts came from the radicalized right-wing media sources, not from the left.

The authors acknowledge that they "do not expect our findings to persuade anyone who is already committed to the right-wing media ecosystem. [The data] could be interpreted differently. They could be viewed as a media system overwhelmed by liberal bias and opposed only by a tightly-clustered set of right-wing sites courageously telling the truth in the teeth of what Sean Hannity calls the 'corrupt, lying media,' rather than our interpretation of a radicalized right set apart form a media system anchored in century-old norms of professional journalism." But that interpretation of the data flies in the face of Network Propaganda's extensive demonstration that the traditional mainstream media—in what the authors call "the performance of objectivity"—actually had the effect of amplifying right-wing narratives rather than successfully challenging the false or distorted narratives. (The authors explore this paradox in Chapter 6.)

Democrats and progressives won't have any trouble accepting the idea that radicalized right-wing media are the primary cause of what the authors call today's "epistemic crisis." But Benkler and his co-authors want Republicans to recognize what they lost in 2016:

"The critical thing to understand as you read this book is that the epochal change reflected by the 2016 election and the first year of the Trump presidency was not that Republicans beat Democrats [but instead] that in 2016 the party of Ronald Reagan and the two presidents Bush was defeated by the party of Donald Trump, Breitbart, and billionaire Robert Mercer. As our data show, in 2017 Fox News joined the victors in launching sustained attacks on core pillars of the Party of Reagan—free trade and a relatively open immigration policy, and, most directly, the national security establishment and law enforcement when these threatened President Trump himself."

It's possible that many or even most Republicans don't yet want to hear this message—the recent shuttering of The Weekly Standard underscores one of the consequences of radicalization of right-wing media, which is that center-right outlets, more integrated with the mainstream media in terms of journalistic professionalism and factuality, have lost influence in the right-wing media sphere. (It remains to be seen whether The Bulwark helps fill the gap.)

But the larger message from Network Propaganda's analyses is that we're fooling ourselves if we blame our current culture's vulnerability to disinformation on the internet in general or on social media (or search engines, or smartphones) … or even on Russian propaganda campaigns. Blaming the Russians is trendy these days, and even Kathleen Jameson, whose 2008 book on right-wing media, Echo Chamber, informs the authors' work in Network Propaganda, has adopted the thesis that the Russians probably made the difference for Trump in 2016. Her recent book Cyberwar—published a month after Network Propaganda was published—spells out a theory of Russian influence in the 2016 election that also, predictably, raises concerns about social media, as well as focusing on the role of the Wikileaks releases of hacked DNC emails and how the mainstream media responded to those releases.

Popular accounts of Jamieson's book have interpreted Cyberwar as proof that the Russians are the central culprits in any American 2016 electoral dysfunction, even though Jamieson carefully qualifies her reasoning and conclusions in all the ways you would want a responsible social scientist to do. (She doesn't claim to have proved her thesis conclusively.) Taken together with the trend of seeing social media as inherently socially corrosive, the Russians-did-it narrative suggests that if Twitter and Facebook (and Facebook-integrated platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp) clean up their acts and find ways to purge their products of foreign actors as well as homegrown misleading advertising and "fake news," the political divisiveness we've seen in recent years will subside. But Network Propaganda provides strong reason to believe that reforming or regulating or censoring the internet companies won't solve the problems they're being blamed for. True, the book expressly endorses public-policy responses to the disinformation campaigns of malicious foreign actors as well as reforms of how the platforms handle political advertising. But, the authors insist, the problem isn't primarily the Russians, or technology—it's in our political and media cultures.

Possibly Jamieson is right to think that the Russians' "active measures" were efforts that, amplifying pre-existing political divisions through social media, were the final straw that ultimately changed the outcome of the 2016 election. Nevertheless, at its best Jamieson's book has taken a snapshot of how vulnerable our political culture was in 2016. Plus, her theory of Russian influence requires some suspension of disbelief, notably in her theory about how then-FBI-director James Comey's interventions—departures from DOJ/FBI norms—were caused somehow by the fact of the Russian campaign. Even if you accept her account, it's an account of our vulnerability that doesn't explain where the vulnerability came from.

In contrast, Network Propaganda has a fully developed theory of where that vulnerability came from, and traces it—in ways aligned with Jamieson's previous scholarship—to sources that predate the modern internet and social media. In addition, in what may be a surprise given the book's focus on what might be mistakenly taken as a problem unique to American political culture, Network Propaganda expressly places the American problems in the context of the larger currents around the world to blame internet platforms in particular for social ills:

"For those not focused purely on the American public sphere, our study suggests that we should focus on the structural, not the novel; on the long-term dynamic between institutions, culture, and technology, not only the disruptive technological moment; and on the interaction between the different media and technologies that make up a society's media ecosystem, not on a single medium, like the internet, much less a single platform like Facebook or Twitter. The stark differences we observe between the insular right-wing media ecosystem and the majority of the American media environment, and the ways in which open web publications, social media, television, and radio all interacted to produce these differences, suggest that the narrower focus will lead to systematically erroneous predictions and diagnoses. It is critical not to confound what is easy to measure (Twitter) with what is significantly effective in shaping beliefs and politically actionable knowledge in society.... Different countries, with different histories, institutional structures, and cultural practices of collective sense-making need not fear the internet's effects. There is no echo chamber or filter-bubble effect that will inexorably take a society with a well-functioning public sphere and turn it into a shambles simply because the internet comes to town."

Benkler, Faris, and Roberts expressly acknowledge, however, that it's appropriate for governments and companies to consider how they regulate political advertising and targeted messaging going forward—even if this online content can't be shown to have played a significant corrosive role in past elections, there's no guarantee that refined versions won't be more effective in the future. But even more important, they insist, is the need to address larger institutional issues affecting our public sphere. The book's Chapter 13 addresses a full range of possible reforms. These include "reconstructing center-right media" (to address what the authors think Julian Sanchez correctly characterized as an "epistemic closure" problem) as well as insisting that professional journalists recognize that they're operating in a propaganda-rich media culture, which ethically requires them to do something more than "performance of objectivity."

The recommendations also include promoting what they call a "public health approach to the media ecosystem," which essentially means obligating the tech companies and platforms to disclose "under appropriate legal constraints [such as protecting individual privacy]" the kind of data we need to assess media patterns, dysfunctions, and outcomes. They write, correctly, that we "can no more trust Facebook to be the sole source of information about the effects of its platform on our media ecosystem than we could trust a pharmaceutical company to be the sole source of research on the outcome of its drugs, or an oil company to be the sole source of measurements of particles emissions or CO2 in the atmosphere."

The fact is that the problems in our political and media culture can't be delegated to Facebook or Twitter to solve on their own. Any comprehensive, holistic solutions to our epistemic crises require not only transparency and accountability but also fully engaged democracy with full access to the data. Yes, that means you and me. It's time for our epistemic opening.

Mike Godwin (@sfmnemonic) is a distinguished senior fellow at R Street Institute.



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