Friday, March 31, 2017

Heart of the Matter

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I knew a boy once who had a long red mark on his neck that someone thought was from physical abuse by his father. I talked to the boy. When I asked how he got the mark on his neck, he fell silent. Then he motioned for me to follow him. 

He brought me outside to a shed in the back yard and opened the door. He pointed to a piece of rope on the floor and said,"I tried to hang myself, but the rope broke," I put my hand on his shoulder as we both just stared at the rope.

I went back to the house to speak with his dad, The man clearly loved his son. He said he just wanted his boy to grow up "the right way." He admitted he yelled a lot, but said he would never touch is son because of the way his own dad had beaten him as a child. 

I asked the father to show me his scars from those beatings. He pointed to his heart and said, "They are all here inside me." 

"That," I said, "is where your son's scars are as well." Then I told him how his son got the mark on his neck. The man called his son into the room, grabbed him in a hug and wept. The scars that harm us most are almost always the ones no one else can see.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My Guide to Recognize Fascism When I See It

By Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote about fascism: 

"The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power."

In preparation for my last article, "It Has a Name: FASCISM",  I read different views on the nature of fascism. As I read I was struck by two facts;

1) There is a lack of scholarly consensus on the nature of facism, and

2) Despite this shortcoming, the picture that emerges provides insight into the ultra-conservative political transformation we have experienced in the last few decades.

I recognized that while it takes root on the fringe of right-wing politics, elements of it have been integrated throughout our politics.  Manifestation of it have surfaced in many of our institutions over time both in government and in some social institutions. To see this more clearly, a coherent  description of fascism would help, one that accounts for its less obvious developmental stages over time.

I wanted to find the common denominators in the various descriptions using the Wikipedia's, Definitions of fascism page. It includes contributions from political philosophers such as Umberto Eco, Georgi Dimitrov, Emilio Gentile,  Stanley G. Payne and many others.  I found the fascism entry from the Encyclopedia of Marxism particularly useful and a good format off which to work.  What follows is my own compilation of the words and ideas from these original authors. Some of what follows is verbatim, some paraphrases and some reworked to combine similar ideas by different authors.  It isn't strictly my original work,  so please don't credit me or accuse me of plagiarism because it isn't properly attributed.  All references to original statements can be found by comparing the texts to the Wikileak's Definitions of fascism site.  

To quote myself from my last article, "Fascism may take different forms as it metastasizes, but it is always built on three legs: A ruthless authoritarian leader, an extremely nationalistic base and a loyal cadre of uber-wealthy crony capitalists. The goal of fascism is always the same, to optimize power and prosperity for the fittest members of society, as defined by those aligned with their leader.  

I hope readers here finds the following "meta-description" of fascism helpful.




Mass Movement: Fascism derives public support by creating a mass movement with multi-class membership in which prevail, among its leaders and the militants, middle sectors members who are mostly new to political activism. The movement  organizes as a militant political body or political party whose identity is not based on existing social hierarchy or class origin, but on a sense of fellowship with other members of the movement. Movement identity is often cultivated through a campaign to raise fear of differences between the dominant social group and minority groups within the society. Fascism seeks to exploit and exacerbate social division, often in the form of racism or an appeal against foreigners and immigrants. Members believe themselves to  be invested with a mission of national regeneration, consider themselves in a state of war against political adversaries aimed at conquering a monopoly of political power by use of all available means. In this way, fascist movements are able to gain power and political control, even by electoral means, without broad public consensus. Ultimately, a mature fascist state usurps democratic rule and the rule of law.

Authoritarian Leadership:  Fascist states come into power through an authoritarian, charismatic leader whose thematic speeches and theatrical  rhetorical style evoke the strongest possible emotions among their loyal followers.  All fascist states have authoritarian leaders, but not all states with authoritarian leaders are fascist states. What most distinguishes fascist authoritarian leaders from other authoritarians are their methods and means to gain and hold on to power, political power for personal gain and self-aggrandizement being their primary interests.  Fascist leaders are obsessed with their adversaries, real or imagined, often resulting in the hyping-up of enemy threats. There is a ethic in fascist administrations that action for actions sake is a sign of strength while deliberation and consultation are signs of weakness.   Once in power, fascist administrations move to make structural changes in both social and government hierarchies to consolidate power and strengthen their control.  Fascist authoritarian leaders see themselves as dominant and superior people, qualities that entitle them to lead others by autocratic rule. They often exhibit narcissistic traits and usually inflate their own talents, accomplishments and moral authority.  Fascist leaders fundamentally distrust democratic institutions and principles. The hold themselves out as the ultimate interpreter of the popular will.

Loyalty: Fascism demands extreme loyalty to the national leader and his loyal followers. "Disagreement Is Treason" – Fascist movements devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action and threats to leadership. Fascists therefore delegitimize democratic institutions and accuse them of "no longer representing the Voice of the People." Public discourse takes on a militancy. Bullying, harassment or aggression is often directed at people or groups perceived as disloyal. 

Nationalism: Fascism places a very strong emphasis on patriotism and nationalism. It is a xenophobic form of  Nationalism that is fearful  of disloyalty and sabotage from marginalized groups living within the country and especially distrustful of foreigners and immigrants.  Criticism of the nation's main ideals, especially in matters of war and the military, is lambasted as unpatriotic at best, and treason at worst. Fascist propaganda messaging broadcasts threats of attack, while justifying preemptive war. It invariably seeks to instill in its people the warrior mentality: To always be vigilant, wary of strangers and suspicious of foreigners.

Right Wing: Fascists are fervently against: Marxism, Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Environmentalism; etc. – in essence, they are against the progressive left in total, including moderate lefts (social democrats, etc). Fascism is an extreme right wing ideology, though it can be opportunistic. It often embraces social conservatism and traditional values while rejecting or exploiting libertarian or core conservative principles when it is to their benefit. 

Hierarchy: A fully developed fascist society is ruled by a righteous leader, who is supported by an elite secret vanguard of wealthy capitalists. Democratic institutions are restrained and mass media falls under state control and all forms of dissent is suppressed. Hierarchy is prevalent throughout all aspects of society – every street, every workplace, every school, will have its local demagogue monitoring and pressuring for loyalty to and conformity with the fascist regime. The absolute power of the social hierarchy prevails over everything, and thus a totalitarian society is formed. Representative government is acceptable only to the extent that it can be controlled and regulated. Any who oppose the social hierarchy of fascism can be imprisoned or executed.

Anti-equality: Fascism loathes the principles of economic equality and disdains equality between immigrant and citizen. Some forms of fascism extend the fight against equality into other areas: gender, sexual, minority or religious rights, for example.

Religious: Fascism contains a strong amount of reactionary religious beliefs, harking back to times when religion was strict, potent, and pure. Nearly all Fascist societies are Christian, and may be supported by Catholic and Protestant churches. In more recent times, fascist ideology is often supported by the fundamentalist Christian right.

Capitalist: Fascism does not require revolution to exist in capitalist society: Fascists can be elected into office (though their disdain for elections usually means manipulation of the electoral system). They view parliamentary and congressional systems of government to be inefficient and weak, and will do their best to minimize its power over their policy agenda. Fascism exhibits the worst kind of capitalism where corporate power is absolute, and all vestiges of workers' rights are eliminated.  Fascist states develop a corporative organization of the economy that suppresses trade union liberty, broadens the sphere of state intervention, and seeks to achieve, by principles of technocracy and solidarity, the collaboration of the 'productive sectors' under control of the regime, to achieve its goals of power, yet preserving private property and class divisions,

War: Fascism is capitalism at the stage of impotent imperialism. War can create markets that would not otherwise exist by wreaking massive devastation on a society, which then requires reconstruction! Fascism can thus "liberate" the survivors, provide huge loans to that society so fascist corporations can begin the process of rebuilding.

Voluntarist Ideology: Fascism adopts a certain kind of “voluntarism;  They believe that an act of will, if sufficiently powerful, can make something true. Thus all sorts of ideas about racial inferiority, historical destiny, even physical science, are supported by means of intimidation or violence, in the belief that they can be made true. It is this sense that Fascism is subjectivist. Fascism also employs and promotes an impoverished vocabulary - "newspeak" - in order to limit critical reasoning.


Anti-Modern: Fascism loathes all kinds of modernism, especially creativity in the arts, whether acting as a mirror for life (where it does not conform to the Fascist ideal), or expressing deviant or innovative points of view. Fascism invariably burns books and victimizes artists; Artists who do not promote the fascists ideals are seen as “decadent.” Fascism is hostile to broad learning and interest in other cultures, since such pursuits threaten the dominance of fascist myths. The peddling of conspiracy theories is usually substituted for the objective study of history. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

It Has A Name: FASCISM

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Fascism: A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. - Merriam-Webster


It's time to call a duck a duck. Putin's Russia is a fascist state.

While scholars may debate what fascism is, we all know it when we see it, or so we think. We have been slow to see it in Russia. Perhaps the shadow of communism in the former Soviet Union is blinding us to what Russia has become, a totalitarian fascist regime.

Correctly applying that label to Russia is important to understanding our own national politics and the growing swirl of suspicious connections between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The most direct links, so far, appears to be a network of contacts between a shady collection of Trump's operatives and shadowy Russian oligarchs. Whether or not Russia influenced our elections as alleged, this web of contacts by crony capitalists and intermediaries is just what one would expect between two fascist authoritarian leaders. Yes! Trump's political movement in America has a name. Fascism!

Growing income inequality, the insurgence of the political right here and abroad, rising nationalism, the vilification of differences (racial, religious, ethnic, etc.), the ascension of an authoritarian leader in the U.S. and the confluence of billionaire capitalists bent on undermining democratic institutions for self-gain are unmistakable signs that fascism is reemerging in the 21st century.

A few words about fascism may be necessary since the term has been muddled, perhaps intentionally so. In general, it is an authoritarian form of government empowered by a multi-class nationalistic populism and a power sharing alliance with wealthy elite. Fascism may take different forms as it metastasizes, but it is always built on three legs: A ruthless authoritarian leader, an extremely nationalistic base and a loyal cadre of uber-wealthy crony capitalists. The goal of fascism is always the same, to optimize power and prosperity for the fittest members of society, as defined by those aligned with their leader. [For more information on fascism see My Guide to Recognize Fascism ]

Without this understanding it is difficult to grasp the trans-national collaborations we see surfacing, not just between some conservative billionaires in the West and Russia, but also between them and other rich oligarchs the world over. Without understanding fascism it is impossible to grasp the national transition undermining our own democracy. It is impossible to grasp the extent to which fascism has already infected our democracy.

With or without Russia's help, Donald Trump won the election without the popular vote through every available method used to rig elections. These included voter suppression measures in all its forms, traditional precinct dirty tricks, exploitation of electronic and mail-in voting, publication of hacked DNC emails, an FBI email investigation dust-up days before the election and the latest in mass marketing methods funded by billionaire campaign supporters. But it also included something new, the latest in "cognitive warfare" technology. These are essentially internet mind control techniques unleashed on us by Cambridge Analitica, a political propaganda company employed by Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. (See Propaganda in the Digital Age - Mind Control on a Massive Scale)

All of this activity requires coordination among highly loyal followers, the kind of coordination that the Alt-right's alternative media machines and crony capitalists' connections can accomplish. And it requires the kind of loyal followers who know what Donald Trump will do for them when in power regardless of what he says to get there.

Does all this seem too incredible to believe?

Good! We should all be skeptical about what we read on the internet and what messages issue from the halls of power. So in keeping with my Data Drive Viewpoints theme, let's conduct a rigorous, scientific style thought experiment to test my hypothesis.
The hypothesis is: Donald Trump is the leader of an American fascist movement.

The goal of experimental methods is to disprove the hypothesis by proving the opposite to be true. This thought experiment must therefore prove the opposite by showing that Trump does not do what fascist dictators do. Here there is space for readers to pick their most important markers of fascist dictators. There are many such lists to help you choose fascist characteristics.  Select the characteristics most convincing to you and state them as their opposite. Wikipedia offers helpful lists under their definition of fascism page. So for example, characteristic on one of the list, entry #4 reads:
#4. Anti-equality: Fascism loathes the principles of economic equality and disdains equality between immigrant and citizen. Some forms of fascism extend the fight against equality into other areas: Gender, sexual, minority or religious rights, for example.

To state this in its positive form, the null hypothesis is: Donald Trump and his administration will:
·         Assure all immigrants are afforded the same rights and due process as U.S. citizens
·         Respect and enforce the civil rights of members of LGBT community
·         Respect  and enforce the civil rights of ethnic and racial minorities
·         Guarantee freedom of religion and civil liberty for all religious groups, including Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities in America.

We can now count up all the qualifying future incidences where this proves true or false. Let's try one more example from a different list of fascist characteristics. This list contains the following point:

"Disagreement Is Treason" – Fascism devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action, as well as out of fear that such analysis will expose the contradictions embodied in a syncretistic faith.
[Note: The word syncretistic used here means the merging of different ideological strains to assert an underlying unity that may or may not exist.]
The null hypothesis to prove might read:

Donald Trump and his administration will: Encourage intellectual discourse from a diverse variety of stake holders to critically examine and analyze legislative and policy options best suited for the common good. 

Or this: 

Donald Trump and his supporters will: Express appreciation for those who may disagree with him).

The point here is to keep looking for signs that President Trump, his administration and supporters are not acting like fascists. Be as objective as possible and take a fairly large sample over the next several months. Once you have your own results you can decide for yourself if my hypothesis is true.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Propaganda in the Digital Age - Mind Control on a Massive Scale

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

"World War III will be a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation." - Marshall McLahun

 I noticed it during the 2016 election. My Twitter and Facebook accounts were awash in anti-Hillary comments. Many comments seemed to piggy-back on my own reservations about her. Other comments were wildly inaccurate and mean-spirited.

I was a Bernie supporter and not happy with the way the DNC and Democratic leadership conducted the primaries. Still, Hillary Clinton seemed the better choice in my view.

When anti-Hillary tweets and messages mirrored my concerns I sometimes "liked" the comments or added my own to support of my views. But then there were many outrageously false anti-Hillary claims. I mostly ignored these, but sometimes took issue. This often lead to debate with some implacable troll on social media. I engaged them not to change their minds (impossible), but to make sure others would be exposed to a reasonable set of facts.

During these internet encounters I noticed a lot of respondents chiming in with "likes" or retweets  supporting the opposition side. The longer the debate, the greater the number of these silent opposition supporters. sometimes as many as 20 or 30 different accounts, Some mute retweeters even continued to piled on days after the conversation ended, and they latched on to randomly stupid or statements made by the original Hillary hater.

That's when I realized something unusual was happening. I assumed these respondents were part of a coordinated system of trolls. I didn't know I was experiencing a technically advanced propaganda attack.  I managed to resist the feeling that the consensus was against me, but did start to wonder if I was talking to myself.

After the election, all these feverish Twitter and Facebook respondents suddenly disappeared. Did anyone else notice that?

Only now am I beginning to learn the full horror of this new cyber based propaganda.

We many of us think of propaganda we think of what spies call "active measures" like dropping fliers from airplanes, broadcasting news on Radio Free Europe, writing op-ed pieces under pseudonyms or stealing and releasing classified documents to publically embarrass adversaries. The Russian connection to the DNC email hacks and subsequent Wikileaks publication appears to be of this sort. It seems a little high tech because the theft was by hacking, but at its root it old style propaganda.  And media attention to it only serves to distraction us to the whole new world of electronic propaganda unleashed during the election.  New, covertly developed, military grade propaganda techniques were used by private corporations, and perhaps foreign actors, to tip our election results on a scale never seen before. The internet was weaponized against us.

COGNITIVE WARFARE:  Cognitive warfare is a toolbox of cyber propaganda techniques that both models mass populations and profiles individuals to change their beliefs or attitudes. It has many aspects and methods that utilize super-computers, massive databases and sophisticated computer algorithms to weaponize information gathered from our digital footprints to use against us.  Some techniques model and manipulate whole societies to bring about social change while other techniques profile and manipulate individuals or groups to alter a person's attitudes and behavior.  These methods go by names such as  Bio-psycho-social profiling, Recoding (of mass consciousness), Strategic drowning (of mainstream media content, for example), micro-targeted propaganda, etc. These propaganda techniques can be highly effective and operate on an emotional level without our specific awareness.

So where to begin? The amount of information needed to fully explain the new propaganda is way beyond the scope of this blog post. It is honestly beyond the scope of my own understanding at this point as well. This article can only serve as an introduction to the topic. At the conclusion I will point you to several lengthy articles that go into more detail.

ALGORITHMS: To understand the basics of cognitive warfare methods we must start with computer algorithms. These are sets of computer code instructions that allow a computer to analyze huge amounts of data and automatically make complex decisions for further action based on their continuous analysis. Algorithms can be simple or mind-bendingly complex, as their use in modern day financial trading illustrates. In the area of financial investments algorithms monitor the markets and social media sites (like Twitter, to see what's trending) and then make split-second decisions on buying and selling stocks. It is estimated that over 70% of all stock trades are computer generated transactions.

But algorithms are ubiquitous in social media as well. From Google's search engine to Twitter's suggestions as to who to follow, algorithms have become our window on the world. As such they have an enormous impact on our outlook. Each of us who searches a term on Google may receive different information in a different order, depending on our digital footprint on the internet. This impacts our thinking. Robert Epstein, of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology says,".. these personalized results impact our opinions and behavioral patterns without our awareness." Of Google he writes, "We are talking about the most powerful mind-control machine ever invented in the history of the human race. And people don't even notice it."

There is much more we need to know about these algorithms running in the background of the cyber world, but for our purposes here it is sufficient to know that a knowledge of them and how to manipulate and exploit them is the basis on which cognitive warfare operates.

BIO-PSYCHO-SOCIAL PROFILING:  When I type "Daily Record" into my iPhone search, my local newspaper site come up. Years ago this wasn't the case. I would get a newspaper with that name in Scotland. We don't think much about the convenience built into our media systems that allows computers to make assumptions about us. These assumptions are based on our digital profile, where we live, where we are presently located, what we have looked up in the past and other such personal information kept in a database about us somewhere. This is the friendly face of social profiling.
Advances in data storage and retrieval systems, sophisticated algorithms, and methods to analyze and manage massive amounts of data allow media platforms to develop comprehensive profiles on us. This allows them to deliver the content we most want to see. Formerly, the level of detail was based on some grouping we fit into, but increasingly it is based on who we are as individuals. This has been  a boon to commercial marketing but it has a very powerful dark side as well.

In the case of Facebook profiles, for example, scientists found that profiles can be correlated across millions of people to produce remarkably accurate individual profiles. When results are combined with data generated by the "like" button people click on approve certain content, the individual profile gets ever more perfect. With just 150 "likes"  our profile can predict personality better than our own spouses can, and with 300 likes it knows a person better they know themselves.

Of this profiling data, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician, said, "People just don't understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them." This level of understand our personality allows those in control of our profiles to send micro-targeted messages to us that subtlety manipulate our feelings and the association with which our emotions are evoked.  For example, if a person is on the fence over how to vote in an election, the people behind the propaganda machines know this about you and can custom tailor messages to that will influence you to vote one way or the other. This technique is called micro-targeted propaganda. There is evidence that this type of propaganda was used in the 2016 election to help elect Donald Trump.

STRATEGIC DROWNING:  This is another tool in the Cognitive Warfare arsenal used to influence public discourse and alter our mass consciousness. While bio-psycho-social profiling targets individuals, this technique targets certain segments of the population or even the whole population at once. The idea behind this technique it to flood the cyber-media network with specific alternative messages that drown out conventional news and information. It exploits the algorithms used by media platforms that bring desired content to us. So, for example, if you type "Jews are" into Google search, it will return answers like, "Why do people hate Jews" I just did the experiment as I write this and the picture below shows the top results.

  Clearly these are unexpected results for most people who might enter the search terms. (Try it yourself, and don't be surprised if your results differ from mine based on your profile.) The result over-represent hate groups and the proliferation of these results are the work of nefarious operators who flood the "media ecosystem." 

Cyber media would normally be dominated by conventional information sources such as The New York Times, Fox News, MSNBC etc., but these sources are swamped with hundreds of thousands of links from much smaller alternative information sites. These links to alternative information are intended to exploit the structure of Google secret algorithms to bring these articles to the top of the search results. This has a psychological impact on us personally and gives a false impression about public consensus in America. It blurs the question as to what is really true.

The operational structure for strategic drowning includes a coordinated network of alternative information websites, referred to as micro-propaganda machines, or MPM's. Each MPM controls a vast warehouse of "bots" which are bogus Facebook and Twitter accounts, etc. These fake accounts exist by the hundreds of thousands. Some are always active to drive public dialogue while some are "sleeper bots." These are held in reserve and triggered en mass by propagandists to overwhelm news cycles or cover up information unfavorable to their goals. It is also used to create trends and alter public discourse, or change public attitudes.  

A picture is worth a thousand words. Jonathan Albright is an assistant professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina. He analyzed the activity of these MPM's during the 2016 election and was able to create "spatial map" of that activity. The picture created shows the relative dominance of traditional information sources in the media ecosystem, as he calls it, and the impact on that system by MPM's during the election.  The red nodes are alternative information (propaganda) websites and the red lines radiating from them are links or activity of these sites.  


In effect, what you see here is the cognitive warfare battlefield during the last election. This new propaganda arms race is between pro-democracy advocates and their adversaries. It is a war still being waged here and in other Western democracies. It is being waged by both foreign attackers and billionaire Western oligarchs who share converging interests. It is being waged by Russia, who just announced the creation of a new branch of their military calling them "information warfare troops".

 "... Russians have moved into an offensive posture that threatens the very international order." said Ben Rhodes of the Obama Administration last year.

The propaganda war is also being waged by billionaire controlled corporations specializing in this field, companies like Cambridge Analytica. This is essentially a propaganda company featuring Steve Bannon on its board of directors.

This outline of Cognitive Warfare attacks we were subjected to, and are still experiencing as an attack on our journalism institutions, helps make sense of my social media experiences during the election. I see now how I was being stroked, on one hand (micro-targeted), to fan my discontent with Hillary while being made to feel my views were in the minority (strategic drowning) on the other hand. I know now that many of the trolls I encountered were really computer generated cyberbots. All this has caused be to completely rethink my own on-line presence.

I have presented a great deal of information here and a number of quotes and facts without specific attribution. That is because virtually all of the quotes and many of the fact are from the remarkable work of Carole Cadwalladr, published by The Guardian in London. I have vetted her information by going to her original source and found them to be accurate. If you have stayed with me to this point, I urge you to read Ms. Cadwalladr's two article for even more background information. She also outlines the connections between the companies providing propaganda services for the wealthy ideologues funding them and the Trump administration. 

Bibliography

Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage
Carole Cadwalladr, 26 February, 2017

Google, democracy and the truth about internet search
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/google-democracy-truth-internet-search-facebook
Carole Cadwalladr, 4 December, 2016

The #Election2016 Micro-Propaganda Machine
https://medium.com/@d1gi/the-election2016-micro-propaganda-machine-383449cc1fba#.gl16j8e9c
Jonathan Albright, 18 November, 2016

And for further reading from my blog on algorithms,

Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think 
Brian T. Lynch, 9 February, 2016


UPDATE: For the sake of fairness, I returned to Jonathan Albright's website and found an updated analysis of the propaganda machine analysis including left-leaning websites as well, and the full picture of the activity is seen in the following picture. Obviously, there were left-leaning websites competing for a share of the media attention as well. I don't know the nature of the information from these left-leaning sites, or if they were part of a propaganda campaign. I'll share more when I know more.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Professional and Citizen Journalism in the Age of Fake News

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

With all the talk of "fake news" in the news lately, people are starting to look around for guidance on how to judge news worthiness. Some folks are all to happy to supply it, which has led to some homegrown efforts to make sense of news bias and the wildly tossed around accusation of "fake news".  Below is a graphic that recently turned up on the internet to classify news, and quasi-news outlets. 



This graphic, which attempts to depict the quality and bias of news media outlets, appeared on Facebook. It may look interesting, but it is really misleading on many levels. The creator of this work is unknown That is enough to dismiss all credibility.  Furthermore,  nothing is known about what criteria the graph maker used or how vigorously those criteria were applied?  

The very premise behind this depiction is flawed as well. The editorial leanings of a news outlet is an independent variable. It isn't directly related to journalistic accuracy. Accuracy is a less subjective measure than political leanings. It is also objectively measurable, unlike the idea of quality, as the term is used on the Y axis. It would be a mistake to assume, for example, that the Wall Street Journal has inaccurate or poor quality reporting just because it has a conservative editorial board. Some conservative bias is evident in its editorials and also in what it covers or considers newsworthy. But the choice of content is a bias that is present in every news outlet. In fact, the choice and treatment of content are the leading criteria for judging a news site as conservative or liberal. This bias, however, does not render the content false or inaccurate. Any two witnesses of any event will give different accounts. This doesn't mean they are lying or making it up. It is only when obviously important facts or events are intentionally ignored, as in a news blackout, that the omission becomes an egregious bias error.

There are also sites included above, like The Daily Kos, that aren't strictly news sites. It has a very left-leaning following for sure. Some of the writing on this site comes from professional journalists, or freelance professionals, but a lot of often accurate reporting comes from non-professional journalists as well. Hybrid information websites like The Daily Kos blur the line between professional journalism and citizen journalism. This blurring of the line between the professional and citizen journalist is happening more broadly as well. Amanda Harper's article, Citizen Journalism vs. Professional Journalism, is a good primer on this topic. 

Why does it matter if a journalist is a professional or not? 

The theoretical distinction is sharp, even if the practical distinction is sometime blurry.  A profession, any profession, is characterized as a field of employment requiring specialized skills where members abide by a common set of standards and moral principles that are monitored and enforced by peer review and peer pressure. To be a profession there must be an organizational structure to review , refine, promulgate and enforce standards among its members. Being a member of a profession is a broader obligation than being an employee of any particular business or agency. Professionals are obligated to push back against employers or clients who would compromise their professional principles or standards.

So even, if I, as a blogger, hold myself to the same high standards as professional journalists, I am still not a professional journalist. I am not subject to the same journalistic peer review and enforcement procedures.  I am not under editorial supervision and I am not under a news agency's employment. I am merely a citizen journalist. I am on my own.

So is it OK to call myself a citizen journalist? I think so, providing I am aware that there are serious caveats. The question brings up a very tricky point worth exploring.  Do "civilian journalists" have the same constitutional protections as other working journalists? Specifically, are bloggers protected by their states shield law?

Shield laws allow the public press limited ability to protect the anonymity of its sources. This protection is a constitutional interpretation of what a "free press" implies. Some form of shield law exists in every state with the exception of Wyoming. If there was not respect for the confidentiality of their sources, journalists could be reduced to law enforcement snitches. That would severely hamper their ability to gather the news. In fact, without this protection the press could not serve as a check on government power. It is because of this freedom that the press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. Regardless of how you feel about the press, their ability to protect their sources is really the last barricade between the us and government tyranny.

While the courts may show some deference to citizen journalists on a case by case bases, as a class they do not have the same constitutional standing. Specifically, there are currently no shield law to protect a blogger's sources in the United States.  This is partly because they cannot be held to the same high standards as professional journalist who work in a peers group within a recognized news outlet. The editorial supervision and peer milieu help to challenge and reinforce professional standards.

 While I may hold myself to the same high standard as professional journalist, you have no reason to believe me. I am not subject to the same peer review and peer pressures.  And governments, have some reasons to draw a bright line between professional journalists and current events bloggers. It would cause chaos if every person engaged in shady dealings could simply start a blog and claim journalistic privileges as a way to thwart law enforcement. That said, all of us have significant constitutional protections of free speech, free association and unreasonable searches and seizures. So if I respectfully videotape police publicly arresting someone on the street, for example, I can't be forced to stop videotaping to to destroy the recording.

On the other hand, if you are a whistle blower and want to assure anonymity you had better talk to a professional journalists. You might first want to check on the shield laws in your state as well.

Given the changing nature of society, the internet and the press, it may be time to rethink ways to strengthen protections for citizen journalist who increasingly provide invaluable news reporting to the more traditional news organizations.  As financial constraints continue to shrink the size of news bureaus around the country, citizen journalism have become an increasingly important supplement. Who knows? Maybe in the future citizen journalists might be trained and licensed to establish their integrity.  Until then it's reader beware.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Mortal Night

Mortal Night
by Brian T.  Lynch

Sometimes at night, alone, awake
Entombed in darkness, laid in state
While yet my breath the stillness breaks
Oh fragile heart, my soul awaits

And glories of this mortal veil
Pale in certainty of breath to fail
The event horizon of the flesh
From certain life to certain death
Discerned, not seen with naked eyes
Nor what beyond horizon lies

Yet having sensed the dark abyss
And felt it's silence in the night
I cleave to senses yet undimmed
Now more exquisite in morning light

New breath, new life, this feel of flesh
This splendor passion of beating heart
What privileged state this conscious spark
Today to claim, today to start

(A poem I found among my papers that I wrote 42 years ago, back when I was writing poetry.)

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Rise of FAKE, Fake News Checker Websites, Are They Russian Cyber-Ops?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

It all began with a conversation on Facebook with a conservative friend of mine and ardent Trump supporter. I had posted an article about Erik Prince. He is the founder of Blackwater, a solders for hire firm that is also providing very militarized training programs for our domestic police departments. I was surprised to learn that Betsy DeVos was his sister. The story is about him being a quiet Trump advisor.

My friend immediate responded  with a link to FakeNewsChecker.com that lists Democracy Now as a fake news site. I went to the FakeNewsChecker site for myself and saw that it lists perhaps hundreds of new sites as "fake news" sites. I was suspicious about this site as I am confident that Democracy Now, while progressive in its editorial decisions, present fully accurate, verifiable information.

Also overdue, is a discussion of what makes news "fake" news. In my view it is willfully false information presented as news either for profit or propaganda. It isn't mistakes in reporting or accurate reporting, but selective reporting. It isn't obviously intended satire either.

What follows it our Facebook discussion and my findings about the rise of fake, fake news checker sites here and abroad.

ME: WOW!!! This a really scary. I didn't know


The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill has revealed Betsy DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater, has been quietly advising Trump’s…
DEMOCRACYNOW.ORG

Democracy Now has been added to the growing list of untrustworthy and fake news sources.
FAKENEWSCHECKER.COM

Me: Thank you for sharing this. I. Was unaware until now that there was a fake, fake news reporting site. Democracy now is Progressive in terms of its editorial content but it is one of the most respected news sites on the web for its accuracy in reporting.

Friend : Again, We have to agree to disagree.

ME: your discovery of the Fakenewschecker site and it's obvious flaws lead me to do some checking of my own.
First you will notice that there is no ownership information or "about us" menu on the Fakenewschecker.com website. This is a sure sign that the owners want to remain anonymous, not a good thing for a site that claims to check facts. There are no links or statements or any other evidence of an attempt at transparency. There is no discussion of what criteria or process the site uses to make hits findings. There are no references to source material used.

Next I learned that fake news checker sites are popping up in other countries lately. There is growing concern around the world that this may be a coordinated attempt to undermine confidence in news gathering. There is some evidence in Europe linking these sites to Russia (See a portion of an article below).

Then I looked the domain up on WhoIs.com. The site was only created on November 17, 2016. This is very recent. The time it would take to thoroughly vet the content of so many "fake news" sights far exceeds the three month window that the website has been active.  


 
Finally, you will notice that the registrar for "FAKENEWSCHECKER.COM" is 1&1 INTERNET SE.  When you go to this registrar's website (http://registrar.1and1.info)  you discover that the site is registered in Germany or Austria. Check out the flags below for 1&1 Internet SE. The first is Germany and the second is Austria. When you go to these sites the writing is all German. This is odd in my opinion because the owners are both secret and foreign based. I don't have the skills or resources to track this suspicions that this is a Russian cyber-op, but I wouldn't put much faith in the veracity of this site.


Below is a clip from an article on the recent appearance of fake, fake news checker sites. (Also see 1/16/2017 addendum below it.)




ADDENDUM:  2/16/2017 - Here it is just days after I first posted the above article, Donald Trump goes on a tangent impugning the honesty of the press. These rants, along with the political rallies he continues to hold, are red meat to his base. If it is true that Russian covert cyber-operations help influence the election in his favor, as our Intelligence Community has claimed, then is it possible they are still supporting him while in office? Is anyone looking into this? I hope so.

  http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/319914-trump-blasts-out-of-control-media-dishonesty


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Never before has human society experienced anything like it. Depending on who you talk to, algorithms are now, or are about to be, significant drives of human culture. (If you are hearing this for the first time from me, we are both way behind the curve on this topic.)

Algorithms are powerful programs that increasingly influence an individual's world view. Their ubiquitous use may explain our growing political polarity, our growing knowledge gap in current affairs and even why our neighbors seem radicalized. That's not including their impact in other area of our life, from high speed stock trading to NSA cyber spying. But for impressionable or vulnerable individuals searching the internet, the impacts can be devastating.

Internet companies like Google and Facebook are among those who rely on algorithms to provide the content that individuals user most likely to want to see. When you search for something on Google, or like something on Facebook, for instance, you develop a record of your preferences that results in you seeing more and more of the content you prefer over time. This essentially creates a positive feedback loop. That is, each time you search for similar terms, Googles algorithms amplifies the results to bring you more and more of the related content in your search results. In other words, what we want to find is what we tend to see more of in a self reinforcing cycles. This will eventually alter our view of how we see the world. 

Dylann Foot Roof is a cases in point. You will recall he was a 21 year old white male who killed nine people in a 2015 massacre at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  Authorities found his manifesto that showed he was involved in white nationalist websites on the internet for about three years. A recent report by the Southern Policy Law Center details how Google search engine algorithms served a key part in radicalizing this young man who grew up in an otherwise stable, normal home.  Can the effects of algorithms also help explain how citizens living here can become radicalized terrorists for ISIS?

Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published or censored in our search for knowledge on the internet. It is a powerful force with unforeseen consequences at best. Just as easily they can be used for sinister purposes as well if we aren't careful.

The following are excerpts from a report presented by the Center for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) entitled, Ethic of Algorithms. It serves as a good primer on what these powerful programs are and can do.  CIHR promotes academic research about technology and society to inform public and academic debates.  

  • Algorithms are increasingly used  in hiring (and firing), deciding who gets a job and who doesn't. It is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
  • Algorithms influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. by channeling our attention.
  • Facebook algorithms decide what we see or don't see. Newsfeed algorithm filters content without our knowing why.
  • Facebook won't say how the algorithm works, It's proprietary. Without knowing the exact code, nobody can evaluate how your newsfeed is composed.
  • Complex algorithms are incomprehensible to outsiders but they have values, biases, and potential discrimination built in
  • Without algorithms many applications would be unusable. We need them to cope with the enormous amounts of data. But we must be aware how they work
  • Algorithms are not neutral, but rather they perpetuate the prejudices of their creators. 


They must be known to the user

"Since algorithms make increasingly important decisions about our lives, users need to be informed about them. Knowledge about automated decision-making in everyday services is still very limited among consumers. Raising awareness should be at the heart of the debate about ethics of algorithms."
We are already at the point where regulating computer algorithms is essential for our collective well being, yet most people aren't even aware the threats and problems they pose. I know I wasn't until very recently. I hope this brief blog posting and the links above encourage others to explore this topic further.
(NOTE: The second paragraph at the top was added on Feb. 13, 2017 for further clarity.)

For an excellent TED Talk on Algorithms and their impact in daily life, see the following video:  http://www.thewayoftheweb.net/algorithms-rule-our-lives-for-good-and-bad/

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