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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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Ajit Pai Gloats As House Fails To Restore Net Neutrality

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While a long shot, we've previously discussed how the outgoing House and Senate could have voted to reverse the FCC's repeal of net neutrality using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). And while the Senate voted 52 to 47 to approve the move last May, efforts to get the 218 votes needed in the House had been stuck in neutral as House Representatives remained blindly loyal to their real constituents: AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast.

As a result the clock ran out, and that route for restoration of the rules has died a whimpering demise. As is his tendency, FCC boss Ajit Pai couldn't just savor the "win." He felt compelled to issue a public statement (pdf) in which he not only gloats over the failure, but packs a large number of false statements into a relatively short paragraph:

"I’m pleased that a strong bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives declined to reinstate heavy-handed Internet regulation. They did the right thing—especially considering the positive results for American consumers since the adoption of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. Over the past year, the Internet has remained free and open. Broadband speeds are up, with download speeds in the United States increasing more than 35% in 2018, according to a recent report from Ookla. Internet access is also expanding, and the digital divide is closing. For example, a recent report by the Fiber Broadband Association found that fiber was made available to more new homes in 2018 than in any previous year. In short, the FCC’s light-touch approach is working. In 2019, we’ll continue to pursue our forward-looking agenda to bring digital opportunity to all Americans."

Oh, goody.

One, the FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules weren't "heavy handed." By international standards (Japan, Canada, The Netherlands) they were relatively weak, and were, in reality, pretty much the very least the US government could do to try and rein in natural telecom monopolies in the absence of real competition. Two, while Pai applauds a "strong bipartisan majority" in the House, that majority actively ignored the bipartisan majority of their constituents who support net neutrality and wanted the rules left intact in the first place.

Pai also felt oddly compelled to take credit for fairly marginal speed increases he had little to do with. Broadband speeds being up 35% has more to do with natural evolution (largely relatively cheap DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades on cable networks) than anything else. And at least a healthy portion of that speed increase is thanks to community fiber networks Pai actively opposes. Claiming any of this had anything to do with net neutrality is patently false.

Of course there's plenty of realities Pai would rather not talk about. Like that time Verizon throttled the mobile connections of California firefighters (while they were fighting a wildfire) and Pai did nothing. Or when CenturyLink blocked user internet access until users clicked on an ad, and the FCC said absolutely nothing. Or last week when AT&T quietly began violating net neutrality by only applying broadband usage limits if you use a competitor's streaming service. Not a word from the FCC about any of it, despite ample claims that the perils of non-neutrality are utterly hallucinated.

Nor does Pai much want to talk about the fact that as US telcos refuse to upgrade aging DSL lines, it's letting cable giants like Spectrum and Comcast nab a greater monopoly over fixed-line broadband, resulting in some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. Or how anybody with an IQ over 70 can see natural monopolies and media conglomerates like AT&T and Comcast hope to use their massive size and leverage to tilt the playing field and harm smaller streaming competitors in the online video wars to come.

Granted, restoring net neutrality via the CRA was always a long shot. Even if net neutrality advocates had managed to nab the needed House votes, the proposal would have needed to avoid a Trump veto. Still, consumer group efforts to get lawmakers to clearly demonstrate their position on this issue (you can find a breakdown here) served two valuable purposes: it helped illustrate which politicians clearly have no regard for their constituents (who, again, overwhelmingly oppose what Pai's been up to), while also applying pressure for the inevitable legislative battles to come.

That said, it's pretty telling that Pai couldn't just quietly enjoy the policy "win" here. Like the man who appointed him, he felt compelled to troll his opponents, gloat over a victory he had little to do with, and issue a statement packed with numerous falsehoods and distortions in the belief that that now passes for leadership. Unfortunately for Pai, the real battle is only just beginning thanks to next month's looming net neutrality court fight, where his agency's historically-bizarre behaviors (from making up a DDOS attack to turning a blind eye to identity theft and fraud) won't be left quite so open to "creative" interpretation.



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From Obama to Trump, Climate Negotiations Are Being Run by the Same Crew of American Technocrats

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On Monday, the Trump administration hosted an event on behalf of the fossil fuel industry at the United Nations climate talks in Poland, known as COP24. It was almost identical to the one it hosted at last year’s climate talks in Germany: trying to write coal, oil, and gas into the world’s response to climate change, and bemoaning “alarmism” on climate. Both were disrupted by organizers from the United States voicing their opposition, and both received more media coverage than just about anything else happening at either talks, which this year are focused on arriving at a deeply technical rulebook to implement the Paris agreement.

What the flashy White House sideshow obscured, though, is that the U.S. position in Poland, when it comes to the substance of the talks, is indistinguishable on many fronts from the approach taken by the Obama administration. In fact, that agenda is being carried out by many of the very same people, a largely overlapping crew of career technical negotiators keeping a lower profile than Donald Trump team’s at the White House.

That’s not necessarily good news. While the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration was 180 degrees from that of the Trump administration, American negotiators under President Barack Obama were not intent on driving the world toward the most aggressive climate action possible. Quite the opposite.

Since Trump’s election, the narrative surrounding the team of U.S. negotiators at U.N. climate talks has been a largely sympathetic one, of well-meaning career diplomats simply trying to keep their heads down and make the best of it before the administration can officially pull out of the Paris agreement in late 2020.

There’s some truth to that, and the U.S. team is quieter than usual on several issues, according to those who have been in negotiating rooms at COP24. But U.S. negotiators are also hard at work and deep in the weeds of the Paris rulebook-crafting process. “They are actively engaging and they are making sure that the interests of the United States are represented. They are not innocent bystanders. They are active participants,” said Meena Raman, a senior researcher at Third World Network, who has tracked the talks closely for decades.

In something of a good cop-bad cop routine, the public campaign being waged against the Paris agreement by top Trump officials plays into the hands of U.S. negotiators, according to negotiation insiders who declined to be named. The loud condemnation of the agreement gives negotiators political room to demand changes that weaken it.

That the U.S. role behind closed doors is mostly the same as it was before Trump’s inauguration is a big problem for those looking for more ambition to come out of the COP24 rulebook discussions. “By putting roadblocks across all different areas of the rulebook, the U.S. is playing a very dangerous game here in negotiations, at a time when the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has sent a stark and scary warning that we have only 12 years and we have to raise ambition,” said Harjeet Singh, with nonprofit ActionAid. “I don’t think we are going to get anywhere with that kind of perspective coming from the U.S. What the U.S. is doing or not doing is affecting its own citizens, its neighbors, and people around the world. I think it’s nothing less than a crime against humanity and nature.”

The results of U.S. delegation interventions at COP24 could have far more dire consequences in the long run than anything that was said at Monday’s side event — particularly for the places hit worst by climate change. On Saturday night, for instance, the U.S. joined fellow fossil fuel producers Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait in blocking the Paris rulebook from formally recognizing the IPCC’s 1.5-degree report — the first to be produced by that body at the request of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — which found that meeting the goals of the Paris agreement would require far more ambitious action than anything currently on the table. After the U.S. and other developed countries backslid on compromises they had made earlier in the talks on climate financing, the Africa Group of Nations, comprised of all of that continent’s countries, boycotted certain talks this week. U.S. negotiators have also reportedly stymied any efforts from developing G77 countries to introduce equity requirements across countries into the rulebook.

As Raman notes, bad behavior by the U.S. at U.N. climate talks didn’t start with Trump. Documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that the State Department enlisted the NSA to surveil private communications between other delegations at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. Just before those talks, the U.S. and other developed countries were widely suspected of influencing the Philippines’ decision to pull veteran negotiator Bernarditas de Castro Muller, one of the most notoriously fierce advocates for developing countries, from its team. At climate talks in South Africa in 2011, former American head negotiator Todd Stern famously told the main plenary, “If equity’s in, we’re out.”

What’s happening in Katowice, though, falls outside the narrow partisan framing of climate politics that has taken over after Trump’s election. The negotiators aren’t political appointees or mouthpieces for the administration; delegation head Trigg Talley was also a top negotiator in the Obama administration. Other delegates, and those tracking the process, largely understand that there’s daylight between the team that is in negotiations and the administration’s more bullish message to the UNFCCC, and that negotiators themselves walk a fine line between keeping the White House happy and pursuing long-held U.S. priorities in these talks. As debates about a “Green New Deal” capture headlines at home, the American negotiators serve as a reminder that returning to the Obama-era status quo of climate politics may not get us any closer to averting catastrophe.

In a statement provided by email, a State Department spokesperson only said, “The Administration’s position on the Paris Agreement remains unchanged. The President announced that the United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement absent the identification of terms of participation that are more favorable to the American people. The United States is participating in ongoing negotiations, including those related to the Paris Agreement, at the COP in order to ensure a level playing field that benefits and protects U.S. interests.” Talley declined a request for an interview.

It’s not hard to tell what else his team is after, though. The operating theory among some delegates is that the U.S. is simply operating with the directives they were given in the Obama era, with potential points of departure being the U.S. obstinance around embracing the latest IPCC report. There aren’t higher-level political operatives walking around to negotiating rooms and whipping up support on various issues, as John Kerry’s team did in the lead-up to the Paris climate talks, but the State Department team in Poland certainly isn’t staying quiet to fellow negotiators about what it wants.

So what is that? At a side event on Monday, a former top lawyer on climate for the State Department, Susan Biniaz, outlined what she sees as continued American priorities when it comes to the Paris agreement. “I think some countries left Paris thinking this agreement is great,” she said. “There’s not that much in the way of rules, and we want the rulebook to keep it that way. We probably want a 20-page rulebook that is very light on requirements and not very legally binding. We want to be able to go home and keep Paris as is.” Other parties, though, were far less satisfied with that agreement, she noted, and “want to make up for that deficiency through the rulebook and impose on the rulebook more top-down international guidance.”

At the heart of all of this is a dispute over what the true meaning and spirit of the Paris agreement and even the UNFCCC really are — which various sides are fighting over in deciding what will make it into the rulebook, hopefully produced by the end of this week. “Some countries are bolder about relitigating. Some people claim it’s not relitigating,” Biniaz said. “Relitigating is in the eye of the beholder.”

U.S. negotiators have long sought to move as dramatically as possible away from the regime of climate diplomacy that the Paris agreement was crafted to replace, the Kyoto Protocol of 1992. That agreement was inked by the Clinton White House but ultimately not ratified by Congress. Shortly after that, Canada — another major emitter — left unceremoniously. “Everything that the U.S. succeeded in getting in Paris was a reaction to the reasons the Kyoto Protocol got rejected by the Senate,” Jesse Young, senior climate adviser for Oxfam International and a former member of the State Department’s negotiating team, told me. That includes the development of Nationally Determined Contributions — each country’s voluntary emissions reduction pledge — to get rid of the Kyoto-era distinction between developed and developing countries in favor of a so-called bottom-up approach, where all countries (not just developed nations) are tasked with reining in their emissions — in part as a recognition that India and especially China have emerged as major polluters since the early nineties. That’s likely why George David Banks, the lead negotiator at last year’s climate talks in Bonn, called the Paris agreement a “good Republican agreement. It’s everything the Bush administration wanted.”

Among the biggest red lines for the U.S. is the notion of a “dual rulebook”, which former members of the U.S. negotiating team see as a return to the Kyoto rules and even a rewriting of the Paris Agreement itself. “If December’s talks deliver a dual rulebook, it could stop the U.S. rejoining the deal under a different president,” Biniaz told Climate Home’s Karl Mathiesen. “Neither Stern nor Biniaz denies that making sure this doesn’t happen is guiding their involvement,” Mathiesen added, along with the fact that six current and former non-U.S. diplomats he interviewed also thought that was their goal in attending.

The idea that there are differences between countries on climate, and specifically the notion of “common but differentiated responsibility,” is baked into the UNFCCC itself, in Article 3.1, and can be found throughout the text of the Paris agreement. As such, developing country representatives say the bottom-up approach that the U.S. and other developed countries are pushing for amounts of a rewriting of the text. “What they’re trying to do is to weaken it by saying that we need one set of rules for everybody,” Singh says. “That is inequitable, because not all developing countries have that kind of capacity. What they’re trying to do is complicate the entire narrative and put the blame back on developing countries.” He argues that breaking down the distinction between developed and developing countries — like different levels of responsibility for the crisis, and current vulnerability to it — collapses crucial distinctions between big emitters like China and places like Tuvalu or the Marshall Islands, which are already being hit hard by climate change and have negligible carbon footprints. Still more concerning is the fact that it papers over developed countries’ historical responsibility for climate change — the fact that their thriving, carbon-intensive economies have been built on the backs of over a century of greenhouse gas emissions that are now helping render whole parts of the world uninhabitable.

Perhaps the biggest fault line on this front for U.S. negotiators has been around the related question of climate finance — that is, how much they and other developed countries should have to pay to mitigate, adapt to and rebuild from climate impacts around the world. In an intersessional meeting in the lead-up to COP24, the U.S. joined Japan and Australia to allow loans — contingent upon repayment — to be considered as part of the long agreed-upon goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020, opening the door for that to include packages with potentially onerous repayment terms.

In Paris, Obama had pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, the agreed-upon body to help coordinate climate financing internationally under the UNFCCC, and governed by a 24-member board comprised of representatives from developed and developing countries. Only $1 billion was actually provided to the fund before Trump cut off America’s contributions entirely. Now, as the $100 billion target grows closer and with even less of a contribution from the U.S., developed countries, including the US, have been pushing back on setting a new target for 2025, despite need far greater than the initial goal.

Climate finance operates along a continuum: The less successful and well-funded mitigation efforts are, the more adaptation funds are needed. The more beleaguered the adaptation, the more funding is needed for loss and damage — effectively, compensation for when the worst happens. Now, without a major course correction on mitigation, the need for adaptation is estimated to reach up to hundreds of trillions of dollars as soon as 2030. Even so, there’s no agreed-upon definition of what climate finance actually means. Unlike the GCF, there’s also no mechanism through which to distribute loss and damage financing. For its part, the U.S. delegation has consistently looked to keep any discussion of loss and damage during climate talks off the table entirely, despite the fact that it’s featured in the Paris Agreement. In advance of COP24, U.S. representatives at the UN Standing Committee on finance refused to ratify a report on climate finance on the grounds that there is no agreed-upon definition of developed and developing countries.

Actions like that are why many have argued it’d be better for the U.S. to stay out of the negotiations entirely as it prepares to leave the Paris agreement. “At least even if you don’t want to be in the Paris agreement, don’t interfere with what’s happening,” Raman said. “They’re negotiating in very bad faith. Those people who argue that we should accommodate the United States — for what? The Paris agreement was an accommodation to the United States. If you want to continue to accommodate the United States it will be at the peril of developing countries.”

The post From Obama to Trump, Climate Negotiations Are Being Run by the Same Crew of American Technocrats appeared first on The Intercept.

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On preventing future NiceGuys

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Google Fiber's 'Failure' Succeeded In Shining A Light On Pathetic Broadband Competition

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We've mentioned several times how Google Fiber's promise to revolutionize the broadband sector never really materialized. There's a long list of reasons for that, from incumbent ISPs suing to stop Google's access to utility poles, to Alphabet executives suddenly getting bored with the high cost and slow pace of deploying fiber and battling entrenched monopolies.

As it stands, Google Fiber's expansions are largely on pause as company executives figure out how much money they're willing to spend, what the wireless future looks like, and whether Alphabet really wants to participate. That said, while Google Fiber's actual footprint pales in comparison to the hype, the service was a success in that it generated a quality, nationwide conversation about the sorry state of U.S. broadband competition, and spurred some otherwise apathetic incumbent ISPs to actually up their game, as countless cities nationwide decried the terrible state of existing service.

That point was driven home this week in this piece by Blair Levin and Larry Downes. In it, the two quite correctly note that Google Fiber not only pushed incumbents to expand more fiber, but also resulted in incumbent ISPs offering dramatically lower rates in markets where Google Fiber was deployed. This is, as you may already know, how real competition is supposed to work:

"It stimulated the incumbents to accelerate their own infrastructure investments by several years. New applications and new industries emerged, including virtual reality and the Internet of Things, proving the viability of an “if you build it, they will come” strategy for gigabit services. And in the process, local governments were mobilized to rethink restrictive and inefficient approaches to overseeing network installations."

I wrote something very similar on this subject back in 2015, noting that Google Fiber (read: actual competition) did more for broadband in a short period than the FCC's 2010 "national broadband plan," a collection of politically-timid policy goals set forth by Obama's first FCC boss, Julius Genachowski. Like most of the things Genachowski did, the plan carefully avoided offending anyone, barely addressed the overall lack of competition in the market, and (as the FCC likes to do) set forth a number of policy "goals" that would have been met with our without the plan's guidance.

Levin, who played a starring role in crafting that plan, sent me numerous e-mails complaining about my original piece, yet several years later returns to make many of the same points. That said, Levin and Downes go on to notably oversell the lasting impact Google Fiber's effort is going to have on the (still quite broken) U.S. broadband market. There's an odd effort to suggest the broadband market has been permanently fixed by Google's now-shelved ambitions. Case in point:

"Though Google appears to have paused future deployments, the broadband business has permanently changed. Fiber investments by former telephone companies have accelerated or restarted. More advanced DSL using fiber-copper hybrid technology was rushed into operation, as were new fiber-to-the-home services from AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier. Cable companies once again upgraded their technology, accelerating deployment of gigabit-capable standards. New technologies — including low-orbit satellites and “fixed wireless” — were developed for remote and rural locations.

The two-tiered market of high-speed cable and lower-speed DSL broadband has given way to a free-for-all, forcing adoption of more disruptive strategies by incumbents and new entrants alike. The result is increased competition between providers and among cities and regions eager for game-changing private investment."

Reading that, you'd think it was mission accomplished. But Levin and Downes fail to even mention how incumbent ISPs continue to sue many cities that try to modernize their rules if they favor competition. They also ignore how many potential Google Fiber customers are immensely frustrated by delays, cancelled installations, and empty hype as Google Fiber figures out what it wants to do next. But most importantly, the piece ignores that despite Google Fiber, the broadband competition problem in the United States continues to get worse in many markets.

One, without Google Fiber or an equivalent prompting them to, most telcos have refused to upgrade aging DSL lines to fiber at any real scale. That has resulted in cable incumbents like Comcast securing a bigger monopoly than ever across a huge swath of the states, and numerous areas where fast broadband simply doesn't exist (especially if you're poor). And while Downes/Levin look to wireless to magically fix this mono/duopoly, companies like AT&T and Verizon still enjoy monopoly control over the backhaul fiber used to feed cellular towers (and everything ranging from ATMs to schools).

So yes, Google Fiber helped generate a conversation about broadband competition, and even helped address the problem in a few areas. But we've taken numerous steps back since Google Fiber's heyday. Especially given the Ajit Pai tactic of simply gutting most consumer protections and insisting that's going to somehow magically fix the problem of natural broadband monopolies (another issue the authors just kind of casually ignore as if it's not relevant to solving the current problem).

The broadband market is a complicated mess, and is going to require an ocean of creative solutions, from serious policy that encourages competition, to local public/private partnerships where local governments play a role in improving connectivity to lower ROI markets. Yes, Google Fiber highlighted the problem. But its solution was a temporary one, and most would-be competitors lack the resources allowing them to bang their heads against a regulatory captured, broken market. So yes, Google Fiber taught us some valuable lessons, but it's entirely unclear if those lessons have actually been learned.



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122 days ago
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Air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence, according to new research, indicating that the damage to society of toxic air is far deeper than the well-known impacts on physical health. It found that high pollution levels led to significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic

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