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Q U I C K   L I N K S

Believing that Aristotelian rhetoric offered an unsurpassed guide to knowledge of human nature and the art of controlling/inflaming “the passions,” Hobbes made a free translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, dictated to William Cavendish (later 3rd earl of Devonshire) while Hobbes was his tutor.
  Learn more about Thomas Hobbes’ textbook of rhetorized psychology, A Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique (1st edn., 1637) in the Editor’s Introduction for Lib. Cat. No. THOB1637.


Thomas Hobbes attributed the English Civil War (1642–49) to ideological — not the usual economic or social — causes. And demagoguery played a crucial role in fomenting civil discord and “in raising seditions” resulting in the English Revolution of 1642–60.
  In Hobbes’s mind, “ambitious and unscrupulous men manipulating the populace caused the rebellion” by popularizing “incorrect doctrines about church and state, rights and obligations, liberty and tyranny.”
  Click/tap here to open a second-window aside giving Hobbes’s take on demogoguery as a perversion of the Ciceronian union of wisdom and eloquence, personified in the classical figure of Hermathena.

To learn more about the engraver of the 17th-century head-piece pictured to the left, see the IN BRIEF biography for Wenceslaus Hollar.


Hollar shared Hobbes’s belief that “certain opinions in divinity and politics” were the “seed” of the English civil war, while public disputations over government policy (“declarations, remonstrances, and other writings between the King and Parliament published”) “hath the growth of it” (Thomas Hobbes, epistle dedicatory to his scribal publication of Behemoth, written c.1668).
  This Hobbesian interpretation of events is clear in Hollar’s superb political print, The World is Ruled & Governed by Opinion (1641). Here Hollar skewers the political influence of popular broadsides such as A Reply as True as Steele (1641), The Downfal of Temporizing Poets (1641), Henry Walker’s An Answer to a Foolish Pamphlet, Mercuries Message Defended (1641), News from Elizium, All to Westminster (1641), Hellish Parliament (1641), A Swarme of Sectaries (1641), Taylors Phisicke (1641), Brownists Conventicle (1641), and Square-Caps Turned into Round-Heads (1642). Proliferating broadsides — along with newspapers (originally known as a newsbook, gazette, or diurnal) and satiric ballads (which quickly disseminated a political grievance or message among the illiterate masses) — were the 17th-century’s equivalent of our toxic social media, with ideological division promoted for influence & profit by a polarizing press.
  For details, see She-philosopher.​com’s Gallery Exhibit on Hollar’s politicized information trees (forthcoming).

Reflecting on the causes of the English Civil War (1642–49), Hobbes characterized demagogic certainty as “impudence,” noting that “Impudence in democratical assemblies does almost all that’s done; ’tis the goddess of rhetoric, and carries proof with it. For what ordinary man will not, from so great boldness of affirmation, conclude there is great probability in the thing affirmed?” (T. Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, MS. written c.1668, transcribed and printed by Ferdinand Tönnies in 1889, 68–69) Because such rhetorical flourish results in the kind of unwarranted certitude that led the English Parliament to declare Charles I a traitor (and to justify regicide in 1649), Hobbes emphasized its political dangers.
  Hobbes’s astute observation about the ill effects of rhetorical certainty — when our “certain opinions in divinity and politics” (Thomas Hobbes, epistle dedicatory to his scribal publication of Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, written c.1668) are heartfelt, but unjustified — is still instructive.
  I have already warned about our own resort to militant ignorance and a demagogic politics of certainty in She-philosopher.​com’s detailed study of California’s ill-conceived Good Neighbor Fence Act of 2013 (California Assembly Bill 1404).
  Here, I wish to probe into our digital golden age of demagoguery, as stoked by social media, the dark web, talk radio, and partisan mainstream media. All use modern digital technologies to pull in advertisers & sponsors & supporters, to craft a brand with broad appeal, and to spread the word (which too often includes lies, “fake news,” and alternate realities). The turn to micro-targeting in U.S. politics is especially pernicious.
  I believe that a classical agonistic politics of persuasion — not the polling and data-driven demagoguery (calculated, personalized appeals designed to manipulate us) which control policy-making today — best serves the type of pluralist democratic society to which many of us aspire.
  But that’s not where we’re at today (August 2020), under the national leadership of President Trump, who personifies the power of “impudence” in politics.

NEW  Heading into 2022’s election season, during which it is predicted that the Democrats will continue to lose political power, much has been made of that party’s “messaging” problem: e.g., “Democrats Shift Messaging ahead of Midterm Elections to Paint Republicans as Too Extreme” (PBS NewsHour Weekend segment, first aired 5/15/2022).
  I have been whistling into the wind about this for years now, most recently in a letter (dated 11/15/2021) to California Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins, copying California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. Neither politician has condescended to reply.
  As intimated in my letter, and argued even more explicitly here (comment posted 5/5/2022 to my in-depth study of California’s assembly bill enabling predatory neighbors), I believe the Democrats face much more than a perceptual problem around messaging. As in my particular case, there are real grievances out there, about which the government can actually do something (unlike, say, inflation), and yet politicians choose not to.
  Their choice mystifies me, especially when, as with my own grievance, the solution is simple: my elected representatives (both Democrats) need to just do their job, which means enacting fair & just laws which serve the common good, along with correcting the inconveniences of state government for which they are responsible.
  What a powerful message that would send!
  In an insightful op-ed — “Why Dems Ought to Take a Cue from the GOP and Get Angry: To avoid a midterm wipeout, the party should focus less on dry policy issues and more on eliciting an emotional reaction” — posted to POLITICO’s website on 5/18/2022, Will Stancil counsels Democrats to craft persuasive appeals that tap into real grievances (what I would call the art of rhetoric: a judicious balance of pathos and ethos with logos) in order to counter Trumpublican demagoguery this election season.
  I agree wholeheartedly. It’s a winning formula, and an effective way to reclaim the digital agon from the impudent trolls and charlatans who predominate.
  But so much practical wisdom — for Aristotle, modelled by artisans, especially the master mason — is beyond either party. (You can knock me over with a feather should the Dems adopt it! ;-)
                   *  *  *
NEW  As for my assertion above that government can not do much about present (mid-2022) inflation: this doesn’t give government permission to do nothing at all! There are prudent, piecemeal actions policy-makers can take. For example, see “Republican Donors to GOP Leaders: Bipartisan Immigration Reform Would Ease Inflation / On DACA’s 10th anniversary, a group of GOP business leaders said protecting Dreamers would help ease the nation’s labor shortages, reduce food prices and create jobs for all” by Sabrina Rodriguez (posted to POLITICO website, 6/14/2022).
  And see “Former Treasury Head Urges Tariff Cuts, Warns of Recession: Larry Summers called the central bank’s forecast that inflation will cool ‘much too optimistic’” by Madison Fernandez (posted to POLITICO website, 6/12/2022). Among other things, Summers here suggests “passing bipartisan legislation that would raise Trump-era tax cuts, impose taxes on corporations and take down prescription drug prices.” (M. Fernandez, n. pag.)
  For an intriguing entrepreneurial disruption of business-as-usual around prescription drug pricing, see the PBS NewsHour Weekend segment, “Mark Cuban Aims to Lower Prescription Drug Prices with Online Pharmacy” (first aired, 6/5/2022). Cuban contends that “the attempts that are being discussed [including by legislators] don’t really get to the heart of the problem” when it comes to “insanely priced” medications. (FWIW, I agree.)
  The success of Cuban’s entrepreneurial public-service model (“you don’t have to be the leader to be a leader”) is matched by Elon Musk’s and SpaceX’s “ability, within days, to deliver thousands of backpack-sized satellite stations to the war-torn country [Ukraine] and keep them online despite increasingly sophisticated attacks from Russian hackers,” as reported by Christopher Miller, Mark Scott and Bryan Bender in “UkraineX: How Elon Musk’s Space Satellites Changed the War on the Ground / From artillery strikes to Zoom calls, the tech billionaire’s internet service has become a lifeline in the fight against Russia” (posted to POLITICO website, 6/9/2022). “All told, Starlink — and Ukraine’s use of the satellite network, both for its military and civilians — has thwarted Russia’s efforts to cut the Eastern European country off from the outside world, giving Kyiv a much-needed victory against Moscow in a conflict that shows no sign of ending.  ¶   ‘The strategic impact is, it totally destroyed [Vladimir] Putin’s information campaign,’ said Brig. Gen. Steve Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley tech outpost. ‘He never, to this day, has been able to silence Zelenskyy.’” (C. Miller, M. Scott and B. Bender, n. pag.)
  Both Cuban’s and Musk’s achievements are real-world wins for “We the People” — not just fantastical wins that happen only when we willingly suspend disbelief and enter some demagogue’s alternate reality.
                   *  *  *
NEW  For an effective use of polling data to craft the sort of ethical rhetoric which can “remind, inform, and convince voters,” seeDemocrats Have Another Infrastructure Problem: The landmark bipartisan bill is popular with voters, but recent polling shows the vast majority of them don’t even know it’s now a law” by Sarah Ferris (posted to POLITICO’s website, 7/22/2022).
  That one of President Biden’s most significant domestic achievements — with rare bipartisan majority support, because it actually makes people’s “lives tangibly better” — is so little known reveals much about the sorry state of today’s political demagoguery, where fake grievance, fake outrage, conspiracy theories, and misinformation drive discussion.
  While voters’ support for President Joe Biden’s $550 billion infrastructure bill “reaches 80 percent after learning about what’s in it,” “Eight months after Congress cleared the landmark legislation to overhaul the nation’s roads, bridges, rails and broadband, only 24 percent of voters are aware it’s now a law.” “While House Democrats collectively held over 1,000 events to promote the bill, the polling shows it didn’t resonate with most people.” (S. Ferris, n. pag.)
  Clearly, in this case, the Democrats have a problem with messaging, with pollsters advising that “Democrats shouldn’t try to pitch the bill as a solution for all problems. For instance, it found that voters don’t believe politicians’ promises that the bill will fight inflation or climate change. Instead, they advised Democrats to stick to the basics: ‘Better roads, cleaner water, and faster internet made with American products and built by American workers is what this bill is about and what sells.’  ¶   Another message that worked: Attacking Republicans for voting against the broadly popular bill.   ¶   The memo found that swing voters were ‘much less likely’ to support a Republican as the result of a message attacking GOP lawmakers for siding with ‘Big Oil’ on the bill. Voters also said they were less likely to support Republicans after viewing negative messages that called out GOP members who took credit for local project funding that came from an infrastructure bill they voted against.  ¶   Party arms like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have already leaned into that type of attack, which they’ve dubbed ‘vote no, take the dough.’” (S. Ferris, n. pag.)
  As political strategist Lis Smith observes, the best messenger “to remind, inform, and convince voters” concerning the new infrastructure law is Transportation Secretary and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “It’s a role that clearly lends itself to his skill set. Because it would drive me nuts during the campaign hearing all his wonky, wonky talk about infrastructure, about roads, about smart sewers. And it was a running joke between us: I was like, ‘I can’t listen to you talk about smart sewers one more time, or I will lose my mind.’ He loves that stuff.  ¶   As someone who was a mayor who was on the ground, who knows how important this stuff is, he’s a great messenger to send out there to these smaller media markets everywhere, where he can meet with the mayors, speak to them in their language, help make sure that they’re getting the resources they need. I think it’s just shaped up to be a perfect role for him. And as you saw on Fox News Sunday, as I went to bed last night, [his clip] has 8 million views. There’s just no one who can do a TV interview like Pete Buttigieg.” (Lis Smith, in Q&A with POLITICO’s Adam Wren, “‘I Had Been Seen as a Little Radioactive’: Lis Smith Talks Mayor Pete, How She Picks Stars and the Future of the Democratic Party: 90 minutes with one of America’s top political consultants”; posted to POLITICO’s website, 7/15/2022)
  Watch Secretary Buttigieg rise to the occasion in his interview with PBS News Weekend’s Geoff Bennett, “Pete Buttigieg Discusses Travel Woes, Supply Chains, Infrastructure and LGBTQ Rights” (first aired, 7/23/2022).

And while we’re on the subject of rhetorical modeling, see She-philosopher.​com’s IN BRIEF topic promoting the more ethical rhetoric of critical pluralism — an art of engagement & confrontation, born of respect for discomfiting difference.
  Among other useful aphorisms you’ll find there:
  “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependence become unthreatening....” —Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (1984)


NEW  Given the mainstreaming of “Great Replacement Theory,” which views human rights as a zero-sum game — seeking to rescue white supremacy by violently eradicating difference — even a rhetorical commitment to pluralism becomes a radically libertarian act.
  Most recently, “Great Replacement Theory” has been blamed for the white nationalist violence perpetrated on the Black community in Buffalo, New York on 5/14/2022, turning the traditional “hate crime” into something new, according to Eric K. Ward of the Southern Poverty Law Center: “... we are beginning to watch the unfolding of mission-oriented hate crimes.  ¶   These are not merely reactionary hate crimes that we have witnessed of the old targeting of minority communities. This is an ideology that is fueling this violence. This violence is not an aberration of the Great Replacement Theory. It is a feature.  ¶   And it is a feature that is grounded in antisemitism. Let’s be clear. This killer believed that, by targeting and killing African Americans, that he was engaging in a war against what he believed to be a Jewish conspiracy. And so we’re beginning to understand that this underlying Jewish conspiracy called the Great Replacement Theory is threatening not just Jews, but all of us.  ¶   But what’s most frightening is that elected officials are beginning to mainstream and promote this message in the halls of Congress.” (from the PBS NewsHour segment, “How America Can Respond to White Nationalist Violence,” first aired 5/16/2022)
  Social media also provides a public space in which white nationalist demagoguery can flourish, according to Jillian Peterson, a criminal justice professor, forensic psychologist, and co-founder of The Violence Project: “Yes, we have seen mass shootings really increasing over the last 10, even five years.  ¶   And we think that part of that escalation is the role of social media, that you have individuals who are lost, depressed, hopeless, angry, suicidal going online, and they’re able to find these dark communities where a lot of their thinking is really validated. They’re able to be radicalized really quickly.  ¶   Before the Internet, it was really difficult to go and find all these people who were saying these horrific things. But, with the Internet, you can find them and be validated really easily.  ¶   We also have cases of perpetrators even talking to other perpetrators inside of chat rooms before they go out and do this. And we also know that these shootings are meant to be watched and witnessed. They’re a way to kind of try to make your grievance and your anger go viral. And so the Internet there again plays a huge role in being able to turn these perpetrators into the sort of notorious people that we all know.” (from the PBS NewsHour segment, “Buffalo Massacre Highlights How Mass Shooters Are Able to Obtain Weapons Legally,” first aired 5/18/2022)
  For a primer on the new media-driven grievance around white identity politics, seeWhat Is ‘Great Replacement Theory’ and How Does It Fuel Racist Violence?” by David Bauder, of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/16/2022).
  NEW  And for a strong challenge to the fake grievances concerning white privilege churned up by social media, seeHow the Buffalo Massacre Proves There’s No ‘Great Replacement’: It was no accident that a shooter who wanted to gun down Black Americans had to travel 200 miles to find them” by Sheryll Cashin (posted to POLITICO’s website, 5/21/2022). As Cashin explains: “The 18-year-old white male shooter was radicalized by the ‘great replacement’ theory that nearly half of Republicans and a quarter of Democrats now believe to some extent — the conspiratorial idea that elites are trying to increase immigration to replace native-born white Americans. He self-identified as a white supremacist and apparently wrote a lengthy manifesto in a pattern followed by several mass killers. The manifesto parroted common anti-Semitic and racist ideas and internet memes. Among his written goals: murdering as many Black people as possible. Though most Black Americans are native-born U.S. citizens, he viewed them (alongside immigrants of color) as ‘replacers’ of white Americans who needed to be killed or chased out of the United States so that whites would remain dominant.  ¶   But the fact that he had to travel more than 200 miles from his nearly all-white hometown to find a Black community concentrated enough to kill en masse proves that Blacks aren’t ‘replacing’ whites; in fact, Black Americans in Buffalo are still struggling to escape deliberate disinvestment and segregation. [...] The fact that a young white terrorist chose the East Side of Buffalo and this Tops grocery store to take out his anger about a fake ‘great replacement’ theory demonstrates the opposite of what he believed. In Buffalo and in most American cities, with the help and encouragement of the federal government, it’s been Black people who’ve been displaced, cordoned off and forced to endure underinvestment and segregation.” (Sheryll Cashin, n. pag.)
  I also want to recommend POLITICO’s fascinating interview with Elizabeth Neumann, a former Department of Homeland Security official under former President Donald Trump: “How Extremist Ideologies Are Morphing: There are more extremists in the world than ever before, warns Elizabeth Neumann. But there are solutions” (posted 5/17/2022). Neumann emphasizes that uncertainty (part of the human condition) is a key factor “making people more susceptible to extremist thoughts,” which has interesting implications for what I’ve been calling (building on Hobbes) a demagogic politics of certainty.

Regarding my neologism, “the monarchical presidency of Donald Trump”: I originally used here the familiar phrase “imperial presidency” to describe Donald Trump’s repeated abuses of presidential prerogative, but have now (as of June 2021) rejected that characterization. The concept of the imperial presidency, as summarized at Wikipedia, is historically specific to an earlier period, ergo, inapplicable to the 2010s–2020s; plus, an imperial presidency requires managerial competence and administrative skill completely lacking in Trump’s courtier administration.
  In my opinion, former President Trump was never the despotic emperor (or fascist) conjured up by his critics’ fevered imaginations. Rather, his one-term presidency recalls the corrupt personal rule and dynastic power politics associated with England’s Stuart kings — Charles I (1600–1641; r. 1625–1641) and Charles II (1630–1685; r. 1660–1685) and James II (1633–1701; r. 1685–1688) — whose absolute assertions of royal prerogative provoked civil war and republican unrest, on both sides of the Atlantic. To me, Trump’s egoism and narcissism and willful disregard for reality align more with monarchic than democratic government, as does the cult of personality that has formed around Donald Trump and his unique style of personal rule (versus the sort of leadership many of us associate with the modern U.S. presidency). My neologism is intended to foreground this alignment.
  I plan to explore Trump’s monarchical presidency (“What’s good for Trump, is good for America”) — and its lasting appeal for millions of Americans, who continue to favor our 45th president who would be king — in a forthcoming study, “Taming & Advancing Our Democracy.” Therein, I go “back to the future” for fresh ideas on taming democracy & advancing the public good in a 21st-century pluralist republic.
  Needless to say, I am dismayed by the resurgence of interest in a U.S.-style monarchy, especially from those who also tout American exceptionalism.
  We must be very clear about what Trump’s monarchical presidency portends for our democracy. I do a preliminary cost-benefit analysis below, in the sidebar entry exploring Donald Trump’s postmodernist performance as a “wartime president”.


NEW  For an amusing update on former President Trump’s monarchical aspirations & patriarchal scheme of government, see Jack Shafer’s op-ed for POLITICO, “The Messianic Trump Cult: To the perpetual surprise of hard-core Trump supporters, the 2020 election can’t be undone” (posted 8/31/2022).
  From which: “Donald Trump, who regards himself as a divine king unjustly dethroned, called for his royal restoration in a Truth Social posting this week. [...] he continues wearing his red baseball cap like a crown and expounds on issues like a monarch. [...] Although evicted from the White House 19 months ago, Trump still postures as if he were president. In addition to calling for reinstatement and a do-over election, Trump ensures that his office calls him the ‘45th president,’ not the former president. He continues to unlawfully use the presidential seal for commercial purposes. And his capricious handling of sensitive and secret documents at Mar-a-Lago — his idea that the papers belong to him and that he’s above the law — make the case that he’s come to believe in his own, permanent divinity. Trump said in 2019 that being president gave him ‘the right to do whatever I want,’ which is consistent with thinking you’re God’s co-pilot.” (J. Shafer, n. pag.)

The PBS NewsHour has produced an excellent series on the ways in which data aggregators and brokers like Facebook weaponize metadata (e.g., for psychographics, psychographic filtering, and other high-tech forms of psychological warfare) in order to manipulate our behavior: getting users addicted to social media, which encourages us to promote, buy, consume, vote (or not vote), mobilize, fear, hate, believe and spread lies, lean into groupthink, etc.
1. Part 1 of 4 (“How Facebook’s News Feed Can Be Fooled into Spreading Misinformation”) in Miles O’Brien’s reporting for his weekly segment on the Leading Edge of Technology (first aired on 4/25/2018).
  SUMMARY: “Facebook’s news feed algorithm learns in great detail what we like, and then strives to give us more of the same — and it’s that technology that can be taken advantage of to spread junk news like a virus. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien begins a four-part series on Facebook’s battle against misinformation that began after the 2016 presidential election.”
2. Part 2 of 4 (“Online Anger Is Gold to this Junk-News Pioneer”) in Miles O’Brien’s reporting for his weekly segment on the Leading Edge of Technology (first aired on 5/2/2018).
  SUMMARY: “Meet one of the Internet’s most prolific distributors of hyper-partisan fare. From California, Cyrus Massoumi caters to both liberals and conservatives, serving up political grist through various Facebook pages. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien profiles a leading purveyor of junk news who has hit the jackpot exploiting the trend toward tribalism.”
3. Part 3 of 4 (“Why We Love to Like Junk News that Reaffirms our Beliefs”) in Miles O’Brien’s reporting for his weekly segment on the Leading Edge of Technology (first aired on 5/9/2018).
  SUMMARY: “Facebook is exquisitely designed to feed our addiction to hyper-partisan content. In this world, fringe players who are apt to be more strident end up at the top of our news feeds, burying the middle ground. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports on the ways junk news feeds into our own beliefs about politics, institutions and government.”
  Most disturbing about this episode: the ways in which we have refashioned independent thought in terms of “confirmation bias” (for Betty Manlove, anti-establishment news which she perceives as edgy, ergo true):
  “[BETTY MANLOVE:] I believe what I want to believe. I’m too much of an independent thinker to allow emotions to take over. And news is news and opinion is opinion, and so I just go for the true news.
  “[MILES O’BRIEN:] But finding what is true in her news feed is not so easy. She has been convinced Barack Obama was born in Kenya… [...] and Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg is a fraud.  ¶   So, where do these ideas come from? From the filter bubble created on Facebook by liking a post or clicking on a targeted ad that unwittingly makes users followers of a hyperpartisan page.  ¶   In the mix, some misinformation from Russia. Her grandson helped her find that out by going to a site on Facebook for users to see if they have liked any pages linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency.” (n. pag.)
  As commentators were quick to point out, Manlove’s beliefs didn’t originate with her Facebook news feed, which O’Brien elsewhere confirms: “Neither Betty nor Gabe say their opinions have been swayed on Facebook, just hardened.”
4. Part 4 of 4 (“Inside Facebook’s Race to Separate News from Junk”) in Miles O’Brien’s reporting for his weekly segment on the Leading Edge of Technology (first aired on 5/16/2018).
  SUMMARY: “At Facebook, there are two competing goals: keep the platform free and open to a broad spectrum of ideas and opinions, while reducing the spread of misinformation. The company says it’s not in the business of making editorial judgments, so they use fact-checkers, artificial intelligence and their users. Can they stop junk news from adapting? Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.”
5. A supplementary episode in Paul Solman’s Making Sen$e series, “Why We Should Be More Like Cats than Dogs When It Comes to Social Media” (first aired 5/17/2018).
  SUMMARY: “Computer scientist and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier doesn’t mince words when it comes to social media. In his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, [he] says the economic model is based on ‘sneaky manipulation.’ Economics correspondent Paul Solman sits down with Lanier to discuss how the medium is designed to [engage] us and how it could hurt us.” (n. pag.)
  One exchange of note:
  “[JARON LANIER:] ... There’s sort of the cognitive extortion racket now, where the idea is that, you know what, nobody’s going to know about your book, nobody’s going to know about your store, nobody’s going to know about your candidacy unless you’re putting money into these social network things.
  “[PAUL SOLMAN:] Right.  ¶   All that information we share about ourselves online, Lanier argues, is not only used to sell us stuff, but to manipulate our civic behavior in uncivilly destabilizing ways.  ¶   Just look at the spread of fake news and the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
  “[JARON LANIER:] In the last presidential election in the U.S., what we saw was targeted nihilism or cynicism, conspiracy theories, paranoia, negativity at voter groups that parties were trying to suppress.  ¶   The thing about negativity is, it comes up faster, it’s cheaper to generate, and it lingers longer. So, for instance, it takes a long time to build trust, but you can lose trust very quickly.
  “[PAUL SOLMAN:] Right, always easier to destroy than to build.
  “[JARON LANIER:] So, the thing is, since these systems are built on really quick feedback, negativity is more efficient, cheaper, more effective. So if you want to turn an election, for instance, you don’t do it with positivity about your candidate. You do it with negativity about the other candidate.” (n. pag.)
  And from another exchange of note:
  “[JARON LANIER:] So, we’re dealing with statistical effect.  ¶   So let’s say I take a million people, and for each of them, I have this online dossier that’s been created by observing them in detail for years through their phones. And then I send out messages that are calculated to, for instance, make them a little cynical on Election Day if they were tending to vote for a candidate I don’t like.  ¶   I can say, without knowing exactly which people I influenced — let’s say 10 percent became 3 percent less likely to vote because I got them confused and bummed out and cynical. It’s a slight thing, but here’s something about slight changes.  ¶   When you have slight changes that you can predict well, and you can use them methodically, you can actually make big changes.” (n. pag.)
  And again:
  “[JARON LANIER:] Well, it’s even a little sneakier than that, because, for instance, they might be sending you notifications about singles services because, statistically, people who are in the same grouping with you get a little annoyed about that, and that engages them a little bit more.” (n. pag.)
  And finally:
  “[PAUL SOLMAN:] So, how to become a cat? Lanier has long argued that we have to force the social media business model to change, insisting companies should be paid by users, instead of third-party advertisers, subscription, instead of supposedly free TV.” (n. pag.)

And another PBS NewsHour special about unregulated, predatory high-tech (in this case, companies using Big Data and psychographics to actively target people’s addictions): “How Social Casinos Leverage Facebook User Data to Target Vulnerable Gamblers” (first aired 8/13/2019).
  SUMMARY: “Every year, more people are playing games on their phones, and a category of apps called social casinos has quickly become a multi-billion dollar industry. But are game developers targeting vulnerable users, with Facebook’s help and massive trove of personal data? Nate Halverson of Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting has the story of this treacherous platform for addiction.”
  The piece has drawn the usual conservative cries about the need for building character by taking individual responsibility for our choices: scil., “My GOD.....Is ANYONE personally responsible for their own actions anymore?” (comment posted by “guitarman121”). Presumably, this reaction was triggered not just by Ms. Kelly’s consensual participation in her own victimization, but also by her choice to sue the social casino industry that targeted her so successfully: “[NATE HALVERSON:] Suzie Kelly joined a lawsuit last year in the state of Washington, where Big Fish Casino is based, arguing that the game constitutes illegal gambling, and she is asking for her money back. She is now getting help for her gambling addiction, and says she no longer spends money on Big Fish. But, she [along with her family] is still dealing with near financial ruin from the game.” (n. pag.)
  As this case study makes clear, cyberspace is no longer a fair playing field for most of us (humans are no match for emotionless calculators armed with an endless supply of Big Data). We know that people with “very severe gambling problems, or gambling-like problems [...] can’t just walk away,” even in the brick-and-mortar world, which is why “real casinos would be required to cut [users like Suzie Kelly] off, or face big fines. But there are no regulations on social casino games.”
  Plus, the data-driven virtual world is even more adept at manipulating our human vulnerabilities: “He said social casino games appear to be five times more addictive than traditional casinos.” (n. pag.)
  “[NATE HALVERSON:] Do we want hyper-targeted ads from beer companies to alcoholics? Do we want hyper-targeted ads from casinos to gambling addicts?
  “[SAM LESSIN:] No, of course, we don’t want those things, right? Like, no thinking person is like, that’s great. But then the question is, well, OK, like, let’s be really clear, what rule do you want to write? Right? And how are you going to enforce that rule?” (n. pag.)
  Personal responsibility is all well and fine, but there’s no way a single flawed individual goes up against a corporate predator in the global economy and wins!
  We need the protections of prudent regulatory capitalism if human beings are to come out ahead in a brave new data-centric world.


A tentative step in this direction (reigning in the aggressive monetizing of Internet user data, by tech firms large and small) has been taken by the California state legislature, with its California Consumer Privacy Act (Assembly Bill 375, as amended by Senate Bill 1121).
  Unfortunately, as documented here (sidebar entry), that legislation (which takes effect 1/1/2020) was seriously flawed from the get-go, and already needs a make-over.


Twitter has drawn praise for its November 2019 decision to limit “the unprecedented power of digital platforms to monetize speech that deceives, divides and weakens democratic discourse” by banning political ads, but critics argue that CEO Jack Dorsey’s regulatory “solution won’t work”: scil. the op-ed by Ellen P. Goodman and Karen Kornbluh, “The More Outrageous the Lie, the Better for Facebook’s Bottom Line: As long as a social platform’s financial returns align with outrage, the site will be optimized for distributing disinformation” (Los Angeles Times, 11/10/2019, p. A23).
  Goodman & Kornbluh point out that the social-media “platforms want to make this debate about free speech, not about how their algorithms and use of personal data amplify speech. The conversation they want to avoid is about how they make money. That’s why it’s important to focus on ... structural, not content-based, regulation.” (A23)


Katie Fitzpatrick’s book review for The Nation (vol. 308, no. 14, 13 May 2019: 27–28 and 30) of Shosana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019) raises yet more questions about the possibility of regulating our way out of the kind of large-scale social engineering projects on the digital horizon, including the seemingly ubiquitous (by employers, landlords, merchants, banks, insurers, hospitals, schools, etc.) quest to profit from data-driven behavior modification (according to a Michael Serazio op-ed reprinted in the 9/8/2019 issue of the Los Angeles Times, even sports fans want in on this action!).
  Fitzpatrick believes that organized resistance (e.g., by unions) is still our best hope, citing the wildcat strike in 2018 by West Virginia teachers — protesting not just state austerity, but also the introduction of a workplace wellness program called Go365, “that would monitor their health, rewarding points for exercise and good behavior” — as a model.
  I believe the situation is dire enough to require a creative mix of both/and solutions.

To more effectively combat the rise of data-driven demagoguery, critics like Victor Pickard recommend that we “claw back the Internet from unaccountable monopolies” and reinvest in public-service journalism (e.g., local news, investigative journalism, policy reporting).
  In his article advocating for media democracy, “Breaking Facebook’s Grip: To renew journalism, we must take back the Internet from monopolies” (The Nation, 21 May 2018, vol. 306, no. 15, pp. 22–24), Pickard calls for an antitrust investigation to look into “how Facebook exploits its control over” Big Data and for “policy interventions that rein in Facebook and redistribute revenue as part of a new regulatory system designed to address the digital giants’ negative impacts on society.”
  Pickard recommends establishing an independent social-media regulatory agency to implement a “broader, bolder vision” of government regulation, moving beyond typically “weak self-regulation that will fade over time” to “real public oversight” and the pursuit of “redistributive measures” (V. Pickard, 23).
  Sensitive to the need for “preventing government overreach,” Pickard suggests a public-media tax, which would generate resources for a journalism trust fund, insulated from government influence, to support independent journalism (V. Pickard, 24).

For more on the growing dispute over Russian trolls using data-driven demagoguery in the digital agon to foment division and subvert pluralist democratic societies, see:
1. The PBS NewsHour interview with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President (first aired 11/1/2018).
  SUMMARY: “Did the involvement of Russian trolls and hackers swing the 2016 presidential election? Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of Cyberwar, believes it is ‘highly probable’ that they did. She joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her research on how the Russians found the right messages and delivered them to key audiences using social media — as well as how we can manage foreign election meddling in the future.”
  Of note, Jamieson also blames the mainstream media — not just the new social media — for propagating “Russian stolen content hacked from Democratic accounts illegally.”
  “[KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON:] The social media platforms have made many changes to try to minimize the likelihood that they will be able to replicate 2016. They have increased the likelihood that they’re going to catch anybody trying to illegally buy ads as a foreign national, for example.  ¶   The place that we haven’t seen big changes is with the press. We haven’t heard from our major media outlets. If tomorrow, somebody hacked our candidates and released the content into the media stream, how would you cover it? Would you cover it the same? And would you assume its accuracy, instead of questioning it and finding additional sourcing for it, before you release it into the body politic?  ¶   I would like to know what the press is going to do confronted with the same situation again.  ¶   I do have some sense of what the social media platforms will do.” (n. pag.)
2. Aaron Maté’s article, “New Studies Show Pundits Are Wrong about Russian Social-Media Involvement in US Politics: Far from being a sophisticated propaganda campaign, it was small, amateurish, and mostly unrelated to the 2016 election” (posted to The Nation website on 12/28/2018).
  According to Maté, Russian trolls “were actually engaging in clickbait capitalism: targeting unique demographics like African Americans or evangelicals in a bid to attract large audiences for commercial purposes. Reporters who have profiled the IRA have commonly described it as ‘a social media marketing campaign.’ Mueller’s indictment of the IRA disclosed that it sold ‘promotions and advertisements’ on its pages that generally sold in the $25-$50 range. ‘This strategy,’ Oxford observes, ‘is not an invention for politics and foreign intrigue, it is consistent with techniques used in digital marketing.’ New Knowledge notes that the IRA even sold merchandise that ‘perhaps provided the IRA with a source of revenue,’ hawking goods such as T-shirts, ‘LGBT-positive sex toys and many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes.’” (n. pag.)

In his book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (Penguin Press, 2019), the tech venture capitalist, early mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, and Facebook investor, Roger McNamee “also proposes [like many critics of social media before him, including Jaron Lanier] that digital platforms ditch advertising for subscription-based models (think Netflix). This, he hopes, would tame political microtargeting and end the click race among digital platforms. Funded by subscriptions, the platforms would not need to worry about selling their users’ ‘headspace’ to advertisers.” (Evgeny Morozov’s book review of Zucked, “A Former Social Media Evangelist Unfriends Facebook,” posted to The Washington Post website, 2/14/2019, n. pag.)
  But Evgeny Morozov is rightly skeptical of evangelizing subscriber funding as a panacea: “But would McNamee’s subscription-based models reduce addiction? Probably not. As long as user choices (and the data they leave behind) help ‘curate’ digital platforms, subscription-based alternatives will still have incentives to extract user data, deploying it to personalize their offerings and ensure that users do not leave the site. Companies with inferior curation systems would simply be eaten away by their competitors.” (E. Morozov, n. pag.)
  The subscription-based publishing model was developed in 17th-century Britain as an alternative to the traditional patronage model, which for centuries funded the arts & sciences. For details, see She-philosopher.​com’s IN BRIEF topic on the early-modern practitioners of subscription.


Roger McNamee offers his humble opinion on why, as consumers, we need to stop being passive and take control of how we share our personal information in a PBS NewsHour video essay, “The Dangers of Our ‘New Data Economy,’ and How to Avoid Them” (first aired 3/14/2019).

If you aren’t worried enough yet about how data brokers are manipulating us at all levels of society, see the feature story, “Big Brother Is Watching, and Wants Your Vote: Data brokers are using phones and other devices to track users and selling the info to political campaigns” by Evan Halper (Los Angeles Times, 2/24/2019, pp. A1 and A12), retitled “Your Phone and TV Are Tracking You, and Political Campaigns Are Listening In” for online posting.
  And it is not just political campaigns that are able to track your movements “with unnerving accuracy”: “Antiabortion groups, for example, used the technology to track women who entered waiting rooms of abortion clinics in more than half a dozen cities. RealOptions, a California-based network of so-called pregnancy crisis centers, along with a partner organization, had hired a firm to track cell phones in and around clinic lobbies and push ads touting alternatives to abortion. Even after the women left the clinics, the ads continued for a month.” (E. Halper, A12)
  Advocacy groups lobbying politicians are also “building ‘geo-fences’ ... around the homes, workplaces and hangouts of legislators and their families, enabling a campaign to bombard their devices with a message and leave the impression that a group’s campaign is much bigger in scope than it actually is.” (E. Halper, A12)
  Most insidious, as things stand now, “Which political campaigns and other clients receive all that tracking information can’t be traced.” (E. Halper, A12)
  At least one individual commenting on this story has called for vigorous regulation of Big Data brokers and their clients: “It is time to outlaw such invasion of privacy in the USA. Make it a felony. Also specify a monetary fine per offense that is high, with a right of private enforcement and the right to class action and nullification of mandatory arbitration as contrary to the public good.” (comment posted by “independentshold thebalance,” n. pag.)


As reported by Roger Bybee in his strong piece for The Progressive, “How Trump Plans to Win Wisconsin: The Badger State, for Trump and Biden, is ground zero for November’s election” (Aug./Sept. 2020, vol. 84, no. 4, pp. 21–25), “Republicans are deeply prepared for the large-scale manipulative use of social media to disseminate hundreds of thousands of ‘micro-targeted’ messages to voters, especially in key swing states like Wisconsin. This micro-targeting allows the Trump campaign to inflame voters’ ‘anger points’ with individually tailored messages, including racially charged material and conspiracy theories.” (R. Bybee, 21)
  Micro-targeting also allows politicians to pick their voters which, as the first African-American female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the history of the United States, Stacey Abrams, has argued, is undemocratic: see Stacey Abrams quote (“In a democracy, voters pick their leaders; politicians do not pick their voters.”) as reproduced for the September 2020 spread:

thumbnail facsimile of calendar spread

  (themed around “Gaming the Vote”) in the Syracuse Cultural Workers’ 2020 Peace Calendar.
  Roger Bybee details the insidious effects of micro-targeting voters: “Trump’s re-election campaign will be aided by a crucial weapon: the sophisticated and secretive use of delivered ‘micro-targeted’ messages delivered on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. Micro-targeting involves assembling all the data available on an individual — voting records, consumer spending patterns, and cell phone information — and formulating messages targeted to that voter’s most pressing concerns.  ¶   Because the messages are individualized, the often-false or inflammatory content is seen only by a few people, which can keep racially charged or untrue messages from being exposed and refuted, notes Young Mie Kim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who specializes in studying social media.  ¶   ‘The secretive targeting of individuals does not appear publicly,’ she says. ‘If untruthful info in these messages would be seen, it would be challenged and could be corrected. But the policies of the Big Tech companies are very far behind the capacity of campaigns on this.’  ¶   Brad Parscale, formerly Trump’s campaign manager, has described micro-targeting as ‘controlling the eyeballs of most places that we needed to win.’ He said the campaign is buying a huge number of ads, adjusting scripts slightly to reach very specialized categories of voters. ‘We made, I think, over 5.9 million ads [to run] between [the] convention and general election and Election Day.’  ¶   The Trump campaign, according to an article in The Atlantic by McKay Coppins, ‘is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives.’  ¶   The use of micro-targeting represents a major shift in America’s political culture. As Coppins explains, ‘If candidates once had to shout their campaign promises from a soapbox, micro-targeting allows them to sidle up to millions of voters and whisper personalized messages in their ear.’  ¶   Coppins warns that the pro-Trump forces are ‘poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in re-electing the President, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.’  ¶   The micro-targeting technique is already being widely deployed in Wisconsin. Through the use of extensive databases, Republicans can slice and dice bits of personal information to come up with extremely small and defined segments for specific content targeted to individual voters. Since the messages can be so precisely shaped to their audience, they can count on recipients forwarding them to like-minded friends and family members.  ¶   The data on the 199,241 people was gained through a technique called ‘geofencing,’ which permits social media specialists to trace cell phone information to a specific geographic location like a church service, meeting, or rally. This information can then be combined with other databases to flesh out a fuller portrait of each person, allowing the Republicans to refine their pitch at a granular level.  ¶   So a January rally with Donald Trump in Milwaukee gave the Republicans far more than a chance to fire up his most ardent supporters. It also yielded a mother lode of information about those attending.  ¶   ‘Out of more than 20,000 identified voters who came to a recent Trump rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 57.9 percent did not have a history of voting for Republicans,’ The New York Times reported Parscale as saying. ‘Remarkably, 4,413 attendees didn’t even vote in the last election — a clear indication that President Trump is energizing Americans who were previously not engaged in politics,’ much as he did four years ago.  ¶   Parscale, the Times reported, was able to glean that more than 20 percent of people at Trump campaign rallies in Toledo, Ohio, and Hershey, Pennsylvania, were Democrats. And fully 15 percent of the crowd at a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, had not voted in any of the past four presidential elections. These individuals will surely receive a steady stream of precisely targeted messages.” (R. Bybee, 23–24)


Others confirm Young Mie Kim’s view that “the policies of the Big Tech companies are very far behind the capacity of campaigns” when it comes to micro-targeting voters with agit-prop and false information. For example, seeFacebook Moves to Target Misinformation before Election” by Zen Soo of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/3/2020).
  New measures put in place by Facebook on 9/3/2020 to “encourage voting, minimize misinformation and reduce the likelihood of post-election ‘civil unrest’” include prohibiting “politicians and campaigns from running new election ads in the week before the election. However, they can still run existing ads and change how they are targeted.” And “experts and Facebook’s own employees say the measures are not enough to stop the spread of misinformation — including from politicians and in the form of edited videos.” (Z. Soo, n. pag.)
  This leaves it up to us to hone “best practices” when it comes to what scholars like me call critical literacy. I do not believe that any of us are immune to micro-targeting (not even those of us who avoid social-media platforms & apps like the plague ;-). Nonetheless, just because humans are vulnerable to data-driven demagoguery doesn’t mean that resistance is futile.
  Professor Deen Freelon makes much the same argument in his interesting interview with Michael Hill for PBS NewsHour Weekend: “The Threat of Disinformation Looms over the Elections” (first aired 9/5/2020).
  Freelon argues that we “have to keep ahead of the media” as best we can: “one thing I tell my students is that you really need to understand that disinformation plays upon your preexisting political biases. Right? So it plays on confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, which means that when people are really trying to appeal to you with disinformation, they’re going to try to say things and do things that are going to attack people that you already don’t like and support people that you do like.  ¶   And so that, I think, is where people should really pay attention when it’s something that seems to be too good to be true is attacking something you don’t like, whether it’s in support of somebody you do like. That raises the possibility that people are really trying to to engage in a disinformation style attack on you. And this may be from somebody that you know or an organization that you’re aware of or from a source that you are not familiar with.  ¶   But when it’s really going overboard in support of your political beliefs, that raises the possibility. It’s not definitive proof, but it really should put people on high alert that they may be on the receiving end of a disinformation attack.” (n. pag.)
  I would go further and recommend that we actively seek out difference (what I described above as “the more ethical rhetoric of critical pluralism — an art of engagement & confrontation, born of respect for discomfiting difference”). This is the only way I know to drown out the siren song of tribalism and instead “promote the General Welfare” (preamble to the U.S. Constitution).


And for some good news on the data-driven demagoguery front: “extreme gerrymandering,” based on the new micro-targeting of voters, will no longer work the way partisans hope, now that the Census Bureau has implemented “differential privacy” (that is, “added random noise to its data that makes it slightly inaccurate at the smallest, most zoomed-in level, but accurate at an aggregate, wide-angle view”).
  According to Tufts University mathematician Moon Duchin, an expert on gerrymandering, “Partisan gerrymandering, for instance, is exploiting your control of the lines [on electoral district maps] to get more seats for one party than would happen in the absence of that intent. A term that comes up over and over is ‘vote dilution,’ or ‘packing and cracking’ voters — in other words, arranging to waste the votes of the other side so that some votes have more weight, power and value than others. It is, in many ways, a question of intent.  ¶   People often like to say that ‘gerrymandering is politicians choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their elected officials.’ But some of our naive intuitions about what it would look like not to gerrymander butt up against the cold, hard math.”
  For more, see Zack Stanton’s fascinating interview with Duchin, “Is Gerrymandering About to Become More Difficult?: A new approach in the way the Census aggregates its data could make it more difficult to do extreme gerrymandering, says Moon Duchin” (posted to POLITICO Magazine website, 5/27/2021).

For more on how the filter bubbles constructed for us by Big Data (especially e-commerce analytics firms) and Big Search companies determine what we see and don’t see, what we know and don’t know, see sidebar entry about Eli Pariser’s tech criticism at She-philosopher.​com’s “A Note on Site Design” Web page.

Search engine shenanigans are drawing scrutiny from a number of different groups these days, from socially-conscious Google employees in revolt against business as usual ... to irate conservatives complaining about search results they believe are biased in favor of the liberal establishment ... to me!
  See my discussion of this website’s contrarian business model and design philosophy — including our reliance on ethical search tools — at’s “A Note on Site Design” Web page.
  See also the sidebar entry on that same page for an intriguing suggestion re. a Big Search utopian alternative: a public search engine.

In an 8/28/2018 tweet, President Donald Trump claimed that “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see.” According to the president, Google Search results are rigged in favor of the “Fake News Media” while “Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out.”
  As usual, the president “cited no evidence for the claim, which echoes both his own attacks on the press and a conservative talking point.  ¶   Google, operator of a popular search engine, responded by saying: ‘We never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.’  ¶   Trump tweeted before dawn [on 8/28/2018]: ‘This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!’ Hours later, Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, said the White House is ‘taking a look’ at whether Google searches should be subject to some regulation.” (Darlene Superville, “Trump Accuses Google of ‘Rigged’ Search Results,” posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/28/2018; n. pag.)
  There is no question that Big Search has always privileged elite, establishment media sources (not just The New York Times, but also The Wall Street Journal, among other reputable conservative organs), because these are the acknowledged gatekeepers for their profession — these are the news organizations which have risen to the top by modeling “best practices” and professional journalistic standards (for example, promoting objectivity in reporting, which I would note is not the same thing as neutrality: no one denies that reporters and editors have a point of view!). Big Search also privileges new media, such as Wikipedia, when it, too, models professional standards (in this case, for academic research). Every profession has its authoritative voices & institutions, and Big Search has traditionally accepted these establishment designations and hierarchies without question (e.g., treating *.edu and *.gov domains as more trustworthy sources of information than *.com domains).
  President Trump, used to a cozy relationship with the tabloid press, is upset that elite journalism is not a cheerleader for his presidency, in the same way as is conservative talk radio and Fox News. SeeInside the Unprecedented Partnership between Fox News and the Trump White House” (first aired on the PBS NewsHour, 3/5/2019) for a look at Trump’s preferred media relationships: “President Trump has long acknowledged top-rated Fox News as his favorite media outlet, and the network relishes its role as a conservative voice. But its increasingly close relationship with the administration is drawing criticism. William Brangham talks to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer about an unprecedented ‘feedback loop’ and whether the president has made policy decisions to help Fox succeed.”
  Assiduously cultivating favorable media coverage in this manner is not illegal, even if it is unprofessional (on all sides). But misusing government regulatory powers to force Big Search to “rank search results to manipulate political sentiment” in Trump’s favor would be corrupt and unacceptable in a real democracy.
  Many things contribute to improved search engine rankings, but in my experience, a liberal political agenda is not among them. “Search engines use complex mathematical algorithms to interpret which websites a user seeks,” as is illustrated in the diagram at Wikipedia’s page on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), where it is noted that algorithms change often, and there are no guarantees of achieving or keeping a high organic ranking: “According to Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, in 2010, Google made over 500 algorithm changes — almost 1.5 per day.” (n. pag.; accessed 3/26/2019)
  I have been actively engaged in “white hat SEO,” at all of my websites, since launching She-philosopher.​com in 2004, and have at various times benefited, or not, from unpredictable changes to Big Search algorithms (such as Google’s move to mobile-first indexing). Over the years, I’ve had to just go with the flow. I follow SEO best practices where I can, but on occasion, I choose to do things that I know will hurt my websites’ rankings, such as duplicating a write-up of my archival research at a companion website, instead of linking to it; and deep-linking to recommended content at external websites (otherwise prospective viewers might never find it!), but refusing to participate in popular link-manipulation schemes (exchanging, buying, and selling links with other content providers).
  From this divided practice, I have learned that what may look like “suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good” for Donald Trump is not, in fact, what’s going on: “If site A is first on a SERP (search engine results page) one month, and then tenth the next month search neutrality advocates cry ‘foul play,’ but in reality it is often the page’s loss in popularity, relevance, or quality content that has caused the move.” (Wikipedia’s page on Search Neutrality, accessed 3/26/2019)
  Without question, search engine bias exists, but not in the way a casual observer perceives it. “Neutrality in search is complicated by the fact that search engines, by design and in implementation, are not intended to be neutral or impartial. Rather, search engines and other information retrieval applications are designed to collect and store information (indexing), receive a query from a user, search for and filter relevant information based on that query (searching/filtering), and then present the user with only a subset of those results, which are ranked from most relevant to least relevant (ranking). ‘Relevance’ is a form of bias used to favor some results and rank those favored results. Relevance is defined in the search engine so that a user is satisfied with the results and is therefore subject to the user’s preferences. And because relevance is so subjective, putting search neutrality into practice has been so contentious.” (Wikipedia’s page on Search Neutrality, accessed 3/26/2019)
  Despite conservative cries for more “balance” in Big Search rankings, Trump is not after search neutrality, which would probably bury the favorable media coverage he receives even deeper. What he really wants is regime change within elite mainstream media conglomerates (making them more like the tabloid press), but the science behind Big Search can not be tweaked to help him with this.


[ UPDATE ]  Five months into the U.S. coronavirus crisis (May 2020), Donald Trump is facing sinking approval numbers, as most of us tire of his particular brand of factionalism, and look elsewhere for the sort of bold, innovative, & creative policy-making needed to restore the nation’s confidence in the grafitto wisdom that we will “get through this together.” Such can-do patriotism and leadership is not in Donald Trump’s range: he’s all about postmodernist deconstruction and nostalgia for a bygone past, not about seizing the moment, and embracing the opportunities of the new reality we’re all facing going forward. As president, his problem-solving skills have proven limited, and “the vision thing” eludes him entirely (his big ideas for dealing with SARS-CoV-2 have turned out to be silly and surprisingly ignorant, given the vast resources & expertise of the federal government which is at his disposal). (See related discussion of Trump’s mistaking branding for vision.)
  As a result, even his most ardent supporters have turned critic, and President Trump’s mutual admiration relationship with Fox News is fraying: seeTrump Attacks Fox News for ‘Doing Nothing to Help Republicans, and Me,’ Get Reelected: It was the president’s second Twitter tirade this week against a network that has generally treated him favorably” by Myah Ward (posted to POLITICO’s website, 5/21/2020).
  The president has yet to lump the formerly “GREAT” network in with the rest of the fake news media he usually excoriates for its anti-Trump bias, but he didn’t mince words either (“garbage,” “lies,” “idiot,” “foolish,” “gullible,” “asshole,” etc.) in threatening to seek out alternatives to Fox News: “Looking for a new outlet!” At this point in his presidency, I doubt he’s going to be able to find one — certainly nothing with the stature of Fox News — so whether this empty threat will be enough to chasten the errant network back into the Trump fold, is uncertain. I expect them to continue in this more independent vein of “constructive criticism” from now on.


[ UPDATE ]  “The Technology 202: Silicon Valley Pans White House Bias Tool as a Gimmick” by Cat Zakrzewski (posted to The Washington Post website, 5/17/2019).
  As always, President Trump and his team will not let go of a good conspiracy theory, no matter what the experts say.
  Impressions gleaned from our “overlapping yet irreconcilable experiences” always trump real evidence for this White House, and the Trump adminstration’s determined effort to assemble “alternative facts” more to its liking is behind the White House’s new survey about search-engine bias.
  “The White House hasn’t said how it plans to use the data it’s collecting about people’s experiences with bias on social media. But in Silicon Valley, it’s viewed as the administration’s latest political stunt. [...] ‘pure kabuki theatre’ and an attempt to curry political points with conservatives. [Venky Ganesan, a partner at technology investor Menlo Ventures] said the Trump administration’s repeated accusations that tech companies censor conservative voices are unfounded because even though most Silicon Valley executives are liberal or libertarian, they wouldn’t let politics get in the way of their primary goal: making money.  ¶   ‘Algorithms and products don’t have political biases because that’s not how you optimise to make money,’ he wrote in an email. ‘The only bias the products have is to monetise users and make money for the companies.’” (C. Zakrzewski, n. pag.)

Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics (1954; rpt. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1982; ISBN 0-393-09426-X, pbk) is still an invaluable guide to the making of “alternative facts” in our new age of data-driven demagoguery.


With the coming culture wars over the advice of public health experts, social media’s signal-to-noise ratio will approach its vanishing point. Too much contradictory information being spread by those with a political agenda will make it increasingly difficult for regular folk to come to grips with the complicated controversy over standardized testing for COVID-19, and the accuracy of disease and mortality counts — and what these numbers mean for public health proposals and policies.
  We are already seeing this on Facebook: “Virus Misinformation Flourishes in Online Protest Groups” by Amanda Seitz of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 4/21/2020).
  And on Twitter: “Researchers: Nearly Half of Accounts Tweeting about Coronavirus Are Likely Bots” by Bobby Allyn of NPR (posted to the KPBS website, 5/20/2020).
  And given the Trump administration’s purging of a knowledge class that puts the public interest first & foremost, government information is no longer as reliable as it once was. For example, seeTop White House Officials Buried CDC Report, Emails Show” by Jason Dearen of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/8/2020) and “U.S. Health Officials Quietly Release More Reopening Guidance” by Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/20/2020).
  And the credibility problem now pervades all levels of government: “States Accused of Fudging or Bungling COVID-19 Testing Data” by Michelle R. Smith, Colleen Long, and Jeff Amy of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/19/2020).
  To which we can add the data-manipulation scandal which has surfaced in Florida: “Florida Ousts Top COVID-19 Data Scientist” by Greg Allen of NPR (posted to the KPBS website, 5/19/2020).
  Penetrating through all the noise will not be easy.


As we have seen, an unfortunate effect of defunding and politicizing the public health sector is the dearth of reliable, high-quality data needed to guide public policy and responsibly reopen the economy. On this issue, I recommend “Data Is Key to Fighting the Coronavirus. Here’s Why It’s So Hard to Find” by Laura Santhanam (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/26/2020).
  Even the best data about COVID-19 deaths & testing doesn’t tell the whole story, though. The mounting socioeconomic and human costs of this evolving pandemic — and our mishandling of it — are not truly captured by the (hotly-disputed) mortality statistics. More than this one outsized metric is needed.
  For a sobering report from the front lines offering a much-needed corrective to the flood of libertarian demagoguery resisting a strategic, coordinated public-health response to the coronavirus pandemic (still cast as a media-hyped “hoax” and/or “no big deal”), see: “Nurses, Doctors Feel Strain as Virus Races through Arizona” by Bob Christie and Josh Hoffner of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/27/2020).


A favorite quote of mine — wrongly attributed to Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), as noted by Bruce Robbins — is: “Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.
  This is my (both/and) resolution of the glass-half-empty/glass-half-full philosophy-of-life conundrum.
  I have long felt that a healthy (Humean-style) skepticism — of authority, of government, of expertise, of celebrity & wealth, of conventional wisdom & common sense & groupthink, of demagogues — is a good thing for democracy and society.
  However, when “The World is Ruled & Governed by [conflicting] Opinion” (as Hollar phrased it on the eve of civil war in 1641), the skeptical impulse can easily degenerate into suspicion of those who do not think as we do, leading to a corrosive cynicism (especially towards elites and experts), and giving rise to the sort of dogmatic militant ignorance that has metastasized via contemporary social media.
  To blindly reject expertise, in favor of militant ignorance, is never in the public interest.
  So I believe it is past time that we relearn how to reflect critically (adopting a humane skeptical outlook, in the Humean sense) on the findings & recommendations of experts.
  For another point of view on this subject, see: “The Problem with Thinking You Know More than the Experts,” an IMHO essay by Tom Nichols (first aired on the PBS NewsHour, 4/14/2017).
  In summary: “More and more, people don’t care about expert views. That’s according to Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, who says Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict and debate with others over topics they actually know almost nothing about. Nichols shares his humble opinion on how we got here.” (n. pag.)
  For more on David Hume (1711–1776), known for “the humanity of his scepticism,” see his Wikipedia page and Hume’s ODNB entry by John Robertson, who notes that “Hume’s political and economic essays [were cited] with respect in the newly independent United States of America. In particular, it is argued, the conviction of James Madison, one of the authors of The Federalist, that the constitution of the union should recognize the existence of factions, and especially factions from interest, was directly indebted to his reading of Hume’s political essays.” (J. Robertson, n. pag.)


The best corrective I know for the scourge of militant ignorance (amplified by data-driven demagoguery, because it’s so profitable) is critical pluralism. Regrettably, the PBS NewsHour has moved away from its own radical experiment with this. Click-tap here for detailed coverage of the NewsHour’s closure of its digital agon (on 8/25/2021).


A helpful guide exposing widespread “misconceptions about how science works, even among those who manage it and fund it and make public policy about it” is Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, by Henry H. Bauer, emeritus professor of chemistry and science studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Three excerpts from Bauer’s elegant monograph — re. science in the news, government funding of goal-oriented research, and understanding the differences between science vs. applied science vs. technology — is available at our sister project known as Roses.

More tools for countering social-media demagogues and promoting critical literacy: “Anti-Vaccine Protests Hold Lessons for Journalists Covering Rallies against Shelter-in-Place Orders” by Richard M. Carpiano and Dorit Rubinstein-Reiss (guest commentary posted to the CalMatters website, 5/8/2020).
  The authors suggest an heuristic with 4 questions that reporters can use to “ensure the public has a complete, accurate accounting of” hot-button events such as Spring 2020 “LIBERATE” America protests being organized over social media. Noting that “protest is as important an American tradition as freedom of the press” (both are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment), they argue that “it is journalists’ responsibility to inform the public of even small groups’ discontent. However, information must be presented in a contextual, fact-based way. The public has a right to know who the protesters really are, how many they really are and what they have to gain from their protests.” (R. M. Carpiano and D. Rubinstein-Reissn, n. pag.)
  Their question No. 4. (Who’s Involved?) is especially important given a digital agon where it’s so easy to dissimulate about our identities and true aims, as we troll for victims and converts to the cause (i.e., seeking to stoke resentments and “radicalize” others). As such, the authors recommend that media coverage of protests “should discuss the event organizers and their broader political goals. Many seemingly ‘grassroots’ citizen rallies are sponsored and promoted by organizations with broader, alternative — even sometimes profit-minded — goals. During recent New Jersey vaccine legislation protests, news coverage presented angry protesters as popular opposition, even though national anti-vaccine figures and organizations helped lead protests, and offered legislation testimony. For some shelter-in-place protests, journalists have highlighted the organizers. For example, NBC discovered that a family-run network of pro-gun groups was behind five of the largest Facebook groups that promoted state-specific anti-quarantine rallies in a cookie-cutter fashion.” (R. M. Carpiano and D. Rubinstein-Reissn, n. pag.)
  See below for the brewing controversy surrounding “Judgment Day” protests organized online by Michigan United for Liberty.


And for another example of how easy it is these days to misbrand a protest, see: “Truckers Honk to Oppose Low Shipping Rates, Not as a ‘Sign of Love’ for Trump” by the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/15/2020).
  “‘They’re protesting in favor of President Trump,’ the president claimed in the Rose Garden on Friday [5/15/2020] during an announcement about [SARS-CoV-2] vaccine development. [...] But the drivers who have lined Constitution Avenue with their big rigs didn’t come to Washington for Trump. They’re in the nation’s capital to protest low shipping rates that they say could force many of them out of business.” (n. pag.)
  And at least one person high up in the Trump administration knew this, seeing as how White House chief of staff Mark Meadows had visited with the truckers the day before.
  At least one commentator on this AP story has castigated the mainstream media for selectively reporting on such banal matters, insinuating that it is just more fake news from a MSM biased against President Trump: “Well, I’m certainly glad the AP takes time out of their busy day to investigate why some people are honking.” (comment posted by “James Uberman”)
  But I agree with Carpiano and Rubinstein-Reiss that it is the watchdog media’s job to investigate and report on popular protests, of all kinds, especially when the government deliberately misconstrues said protest for its own political ends.
  Moreover, amusing as such anti-MSM sarcasm may be, to misrepresent an extraordinary event (organized truckers honking their opposition to low shipping rates) as utterly ordinary activity (“some people ... honking”) disserves the protestors and the American people.


For an authentic perspective on the real costs — both physically & financially — of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic for truckers, see the PBS NewsHour’s first-person essay, “This Truck-Driving Couple’s Brief But Spectacular Take on Surviving COVID-19” (first aired 5/20/2020). As introduced by news anchor Judy Woodruff: “Truck drivers are on the front lines of the pandemic, facing lower pay these days and higher risks, as they deliver much-needed food and supplies.  ¶   Tonight’s Brief But Spectacular features Kansas city-based husband and wife truckers Chante and Ron Drew.  ¶   After Ron began experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 last month, producer Steve Goldbloom conducted a series of interviews with the couple over the course of several weeks.” (n. pag.)
  As the couple’s experience makes clear, the risk-benefit tradeoffs involved in quickly and safely opening up the economy do not reduce to the simple binary construct — protecting lives vs. protecting livelihoods — that the demagogues paint for us. There is no restarting the economy without a healthy workforce: “My advice would be to have compassion for each other, and quit trying to hurry the process of getting back out there and getting back to work, because it’ll happen. It’s just you have got to listen to the experts.  ¶   Before the pandemic, I think a lot of people didn’t realize where their food came from. We have heard [from] friends that have seen signs that people are saying, we love truck drivers.  ¶   Truck drivers have never asked for hazard pay. You know, in fact, our rates have gone down since the pandemic started. So, we’re making less overall than when this first started. And we just want to still be able to do our jobs. And I just hope that people don’t forget about it as time goes on.” (Chante Drew, n. pag.)
  The couple’s experience also puts the lie to misconceptions that, “for most people” (especially those still in the workforce), COVID-19 is no big deal: “Almost 20 — 22 days, we have been off work. We got turned on to a resource called St. Christopher’s Fund, which is for truck drivers. And they ended up making our rent payment for the month.” (Ron Drew, n. pag.)
  “This thing is no joke. Like, your lung capacity doesn’t come back up right away. You still can’t taste or smell for God knows how long this is going to be.  ¶   I still get pain in my knees that I didn’t have before. Just don’t brush it off, thinking, oh, 99 percent of us are going to get well.  ¶   Well, you’re not going to get 100 percent well.” (Ron Drew, n. pag.)
  Then there are all the issues around adequate COVID-19 testing, when false negatives, such as Chante Drew received, skew our picture of what’s really going on.
  Firefighters are another workforce grappling with how we get the accurate testing metrics we need in order to keep essential workers safe and on the job: “New U.S. Plans Reimagine Fighting Wildfires Amid Virus Risks” by Rebecca Boone of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/11/2020).
  “The biggest question for many states has been whether they can count on help from the federal government when wildfires threaten communities.  ¶   The plan for the U.S. Southwest warned, ‘in the event of a high disease spread scenario with a high rate of infection, the associated loss of individuals from service will, in even a moderately active fire season, severely tax the ability to maintain an adequate wildfire response.’” (R. Boone, n. pag.)
  Regional plans call for testing fire crews, but “Not all firefighting agencies are sold on the value of COVID-19 testing, however. The Department of Interior’s Fire Management Board chairman Leon Ben Jr. warned in a May 1 memo that the tests’ false negative rate could lure fire managers into a false sense of safety.  ¶   As a result, the department’s advisers on health issues in wildland firefighting don’t recommend using the tests for routine screening.  ¶   ‘Given the limited accuracy of available testing, current COVID-19 tests provide limited-to-no screening value for the wildland fire community,’ Ben wrote.” (R. Boone, n. pag.)


More evidence to counter the spreading demagoguery that testing positive for the novel coronavirus is no big deal (similar to having a common cold or the flu), and that recovery for most of us (especially those who are young and healthy) is easy: “COVID-19 Recovery Can Take Several Weeks, Even for Young Adults” by Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 7/24/2020).
  As multiple commentators on this AP piece point out, “This is accruing information but such issues for younger adults aren’t new. The same cytokine storm syndrome that drowns the lungs of severe cases is also involved in neurological damage.  ¶   In the early months of the COVID-19 invasion, related clotting problems were seen to cause stroke, particularly in the 30s and 40s age cohorts. Milder, unhospitalized cases are reporting lingering memory difficulties in extended recoveries. Most of these aftereffects eventually fade away, but not all. For several months, military recruiting offices are rejecting applicants who are COVID survivors, because lingering lung damage is a possible fate.  ¶   With the huge US population still mostly unexposed, virus mutation will be a threat in the inevitable 2nd wave. In the 1918–1920 pandemic, mutation made the 3rd wave deadlier and more ravaging for younger adults. Stay tuned!” (comment posted by “Candid One”)

While I generally think that a public search engine is a good idea, I’m not sure it would — or could, given First Amendment protections — do much about the spread of junk news, misinformation, tribalism, & hate via social media which “relies on users to supply the content.”
  Some of the difficulties faced even by private companies trying to stop the rapid-fire spread of junk news online are raised in the Los Angeles Times editorial, “Pinterest Takes On Fake News” (2/24/2019, p. A15), retitled “Pinterest Strikes Back at Online Disinformation. Are You Paying Attention, Facebook?” for online posting.
  The editorial applauds Pinterest’s trial run restricting the spread of “fake health news” by “disabling searches related to these topics. Now, searching on Pinterest for ‘vaccine harms’ will return a blank page with the explanation, ‘Pins about this topic often violate our community guidelines, so we’re currently unable to show search results.’ The same happens on a search for ‘diabetes cures,’ for example.” (A15)
  However, Pinterest’s latest attempt at controlling “what gets found and shared” is a work-in-progress, as the platform experiments with redirects for filtered searches which push vetted, higher-quality health information at users (here taking on an editorial role that other purveyors of junk news, such as Facebook, have refused to assume). “Anti-vaxxers may bristle at the censorship Pinterest is imposing and complain that their speech rights are being infringed. But as a private company, Pinterest has the right to enforce its own rules for what gets shared on its site, and to define the line between idle chatter and harmful misinformation. We welcome its efforts on the health front, and hope it blazes a trail for other social networks to follow.” (Editorial Board for The Los Angeles Times, A15)

With the rise of the 2019–2020 coronavirus pandemic, the rapid spread of fake health news by social-media demagogues, such as televangelist Jim Bakker and President Trump, has growing consequences for public (not just personal) health. Both men have promoted unproven virus cures to a legion of followers online.
  Bakker, who has already served time for defrauding the public in the 1980s, is now hawking a “patented nano-silver solution” — promoted as curing the coronavirus “within 12 hours”: “Totally eliminates it; kills it. Deactivates it.”
  Not only is Bakker’s Silver Solution a “health fraud,” as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported to the FDA, which then issued a letter to The Jim Bakker Show warning it to stop selling an unapproved drug for treating COVID-19. But CSPI also notes that “purified silver” actually “poses the risk of argyria, a condition that can cause skin to permanently develop gray or blue discoloration” when taken orally.
  President Trump’s “patented blend of science denialism crossed with wishful thinking” — resulting in a series of COVID-19 cures for which “the branding is well ahead of the content” — has been all over the news of late. CSPI has usefully reported on some of the President’s fake news alerts, too: e.g., “Beam me up, Tony!,” a 5/5/2020 post to Beyond the Curve: Dr. Peter Lurie’s COVID-19 Blog critiquing the president’s “Operation Warp Speed” solution.
  The surge in “false coronavirus content” online – and what, if anything, we should do about it – was also the subject of a PBS NewsHour segment, “The Dangerous Global Flood of Misinformation Surrounding COVID-19” (first aired 4/28/2020).
  SUMMARY: “Misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 have spread rapidly online, creating what some experts are now calling an ‘infodemic.’ Health officials across the globe are scrambling to refute a flood of bogus claims, some of which could have harmful consequences. John Yang reports on the dangerous course of falsehoods during this global health crisis — and techniques to identify them.”

I am very pleased to report that Wikipedia — IMO, the best of social media — has teamed up with the World Health Organization (WHO) in an innovative project to ensure “equitable access to trusted health information” world-wide: “Wikipedia and W.H.O. Join to Combat Covid-19 Misinformation: The health agency will license much of its material to the online encyclopedia, allowing the information to be reposted widely into almost 200 languages” by Donald G. McNeil Jr. (posted to The New York Times website, 10/22/2020; rev. 10/24/2020).
  WHO digital content manager Andrew Pattison “said he had a staff of only five, although the agency subscribes to NewsGuard, a service that hunts for new rumors springing up on the internet. His staff examines NewsGuard alerts, consults medical experts, posts accurate information on the W.H.O. website and then calls its contacts at social media agencies and asks them to link to it.  ¶   In contrast, collaborating with Wikipedia ‘is like having an army to work with,’ he said.  ¶   Wikipedia has about 5,200 Covid-related articles in 174 languages, Mr. Merkley [Ryan Merkley, chief of staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, which produces Wikipedia] said. More than 82,000 contributors have written or edited them, including 3,000 who worked on the main article in English Wikipedia.  ¶   Because some contributors insert errors or ‘make malicious changes,’ he said, there are several levels of safeguards. Some pages can be ‘locked’ and cannot be changed until one of more than 200 volunteer editors on WikiProject Covid-19, many of whom are doctors or academics, review it.  ¶   More than 1,100 volunteers have set alerts to notify them when any page they are interested in is changed. And, if necessary, changes by any account that has existed for less than 30 days can be blocked.” (D. G. McNeil, n. pag.)
  This grassroots approach to developing and disseminating credible medical information is exactly what we need right now.
  An October 2020 issue of Parade featured a series of quotes from “actors, authors and everyday Americans” whom the magazine asked to complete the sentence, “If I Were President....” I was struck by the answer given by Caitlin Sonagere, age 32, an internist practicing in Rexford, New York: “I would rely on science and use collective knowledge and expert testimony for the greater good. The CDC should be nonpartisan and should be setting guidelines based solely on facts and data. And I would restore our affiliations with the WHO. We want to be seen as a nation that bases our responses on science, that wants to be at the forefront of medical innovation, that wants to collaborate with other countries doing research, not only for COVID-19 but for other things too.” (qtd. in “If I Were President ...,” compiled by Paulette Cohn & Kathleen McCleary, Parade, 10/18/2020, p. 8)
  Even better than such inspirational, top-down executive leadership in the White House is the bottom-up collaboration proposed between Wikipedia and WHO. “The first W.H.O. items used under the agreement are its ‘Mythbusters’ infographics, which debunk more than two dozen false notions about Covid-19. Future additions could include, for example, treatment guidelines for doctors [...]. If the arrangement works out, it could be extended to counter misinformation regarding AIDS, Ebola, influenza, polio and dozens of other diseases, Mr. Merkley said, ‘But this was something that just had to happen now.’” (D. G. McNeil, n. pag.)
  You can further the grassroots effort by donating generously to Wikipedia: get involved by contributing your time & experience; alternatively, you can choose to invest in public health and give Wikipedia financial aid here.

Yet another instance where President Trump’s “branding is well ahead of the content”: his “America First Healthcare Plan,” the unveiling of which is described in “WATCH: Trump Promotes Health Care ‘Vision’ in North Carolina, but Gaps Remain” by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/24/2020).
  “Trump spoke at an airport hangar in swing-state North Carolina to a crowd that included white-coated, mask-wearing health care workers. He stood on a podium in front of a blue background emblazoned with ‘America First Healthcare Plan.’ His latest health care pitch won accolades from administration officials and political supporters but failed to impress others.  ¶   ‘Executive orders issued close to elections are not the same thing as actual policies,’ said Katherine Hempstead, a senior policy adviser with the nonpartisan Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which works on a range of health care issues, from coverage to quality.” (R. Alonso-Zaldivar & J. Colvin, n. pag.)
  When it comes to matters of public health, President Trump is still clueless about “the vision thing”, here hoping to substitute a hyped brand name for foresight and wisdom in planning. “‘This is affirmed, signed, and done, so we can put that to rest,’ Trump said. He signed an executive order on a range of issues, including protecting people with preexisting medical conditions from insurance discrimination.” But as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear, “Trump’s ‘bogus executive order on pre-existing conditions isn’t worth the paper it’s signed on.’” (R. Alonso-Zaldivar & J. Colvin, n. pag.) And she’s not alone in this assessment. As one critic noted in the Disqus comments section for this piece, “This isn’t a health care plan Donald.” (comment posted by “Wulfgar,” n. pag.) And from another: “Trump has had 4 years to present his ‘vision’ for health insurance. And his supporters in Congress have had all the time since the ACA was enacted to create a Bill with their plan to replace it. None of these ACA opponents have done it.” (comment posted by “JeanSC,” n. pag.)
  “In a rambling speech, [President Trump] promised quality health care at affordable prices, lower prescription drug costs, more consumer choice and greater transparency. His executive order would also to try to end surprise medical bills.  ¶   ‘If we win we will have a better and less expensive plan that will always protect individuals with preexisting conditions,’ Trump declared.  ¶   But while his administration has made some progress on its health care goals, the sweeping changes Trump promised as a candidate in 2016 have eluded him.” (R. Alonso-Zaldivar & J. Colvin, n. pag.)
  Compare this 9/24/2020 brand unveiling with promises made on 2/5/2017 in an interview with Fox News in which the newly-elected Trump acknowledged that it might take longer to repeal and replace Obamacare than he’d indicated previously on the campaign trail. Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor, asked: “Can Americans in 2017 expect a new health care plan rolled out by the Trump administration, this year?” to which President Donald Trump replied: “In the process, and maybe it will take until some time into next year, but we are certainly going to be in the process. Very complicated. Obamacare is a disaster.  ¶   You have to remember, Obamacare doesn’t work, so we are putting in a wonderful plan. It’s statutorily takes a while to get. We’re going to be putting it in fairly soon. I think that, yes, I would like to say by the end of the year, at least the rudiments, but we should have something within the year [2017] and the following year [2018].” (qtd. in the PBS NewsHour segment, “Does this Obamacare Experiment Offer Significant Savings?,” first aired 2/6/2017)
  As he rebrands 2016 campaign promises for the 2020 election, President Trump has apparently forgotten just how “Very complicated.” replacing Obamacare turned out to be. Trump’s “wonderful plan” never materialized. “The scramble to show concrete accomplishments on health care comes as Trump is chafing under criticism that he never delivered a Republican alternative to Obamacare.  ¶   Trump had repeatedly insisted his plan would be coming.  ¶   ‘We’ve really become the healthcare party — the Republican Party — and nobody knows that,’ he said Thursday [9/24/2020]. ‘The news doesn’t talk about it.’” (R. Alonso-Zaldivar & J. Colvin, n. pag.)
  Actually, his questionable executive orders have made the “fake news” (“fake,” because the MSM coverage of his “America First Healthcare Plan” is unflattering): “Will Trump’s Health Care Executive Orders Have an Impact?” (a PBS NewsHour segment, first aired 9/24/2020).
  Here, the NewsHour’s William Brangham asks Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post: “The second executive order addresses surprise medical billing. Again, is there — are there teeth this executive order? Will this actually solve this very serious problem?” Winfield Cunningham replies: “This is an extremely tricky legislative problem.  ¶   You saw Congress really struggling through the nitty-gritty details of exactly how to do this. All of last year, we had different legislation in the House and the Senate, different opinions about how to tackle this. It’s very complex.  ¶   The only thing this executive order does is, it basically instructs Congress to keep working on the issue. And then, if they don’t produce legislation by January 1, that HHS should then try to figure out how they could tackle this administratively.  ¶   But, again, it is a very complex issue. This is why Congress hasn’t yet been able to unify around a single bill. And so Trump just coming out today and claiming that he’s solved surprise medical billing is extremely far from the truth and a very misleading thing to tell the American people.” (n. pag.)


With the presidential election less than a week away, the Trump administration continues its branding efforts on behalf of what I would characterize as “vaporware”: President Trump’s “America First Healthcare Plan” (aka “Great American Health Care plan”).
  The president is marketing it on the campaign trail, and Brooke Rollins, acting director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, vigorously promoted it in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff: “[President Trump] rolled out his Great American Health Care plan on September 24 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is on the White House Web site. It talks and walks through lower costs, better care, more choice for all Americans and how he will do that, expanding health savings accounts, telemedicine. [...] He’s tried to move things through the Congress. Of course, with the stalemate, it hasn’t been possible. But, also, in the last three-and-a-half years, he’s been able to do much through executive order, whether it’s price transparency, affordable health care plans.  ¶   Keep in mind, Judy, that Medicare costs and premiums have come down, on average, 35 percent under this president, in some parts of the country, more than 50 percent.  ¶   We have expanded choice to 2,200 plans under Medicaid, 80 percent in choice. The health care system, and where we are today, because of the last three-and-a-half years, is in much better shape than what it was what was handed to us three-and-a-half years ago.  ¶   We will continue to build on that for all Americans, but especially those with preexisting conditions, which this president has been unequivocal about.” (“Trump’s Domestic Policy Adviser on Economic Stimulus, Replacing ACA”; first aired 10/27/2020)
  Woodruff then raised growing concerns that “the Supreme Court may be on the verge of knocking out Obamacare altogether. You’re leaving tens of millions of Americans without coverage.  ¶   And my question is, what — where’s the safety net? What’s going to protect those Americans, if that happens?”
  In turn, Rollins skirted the real issue (that nothing has “been presented to the Congress in the form of a formal proposal”), offering up aspirational rhetoric (“something better”) instead of actual legislation.
  She enthused: “Well, thank you for bringing up Obamacare. I would love to talk about that.  ¶   So, first of all, the exaltation of Obamacare just doesn’t make any sense. So, this idea that the Affordable Care Act, that Obamacare is providing everyone with preexisting conditions the most amazing care just isn’t true.  ¶   So, I will say this. The Affordable Care Act is up at the U.S. Supreme Court next week for argument. The decision will come down probably middle of next year [2021].  ¶   In the meantime, the president has already improved the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, the exchanges. Premiums are down 8 percent, after having gone up 35 percent under President Obama. And there’s a lot more choice.  ¶   So, we will continue to improve what the system currently is. [...] If it is struck down, if the president, who rightly has called for it being moved off and something better put in place, Judy, there’s $1.8 trillion currently set aside for the next 10 years to subsidize through the insurance exchanges, et cetera.  ¶   That $1.8 trillion under this president will be redeployed to the millions of Americans who are on the Affordable Care Act, less than 10 percent of our population, but, nevertheless, millions of Americans. And that money will go directly to them, rather than to the special interests, to the insurance companies that have caused the prices to go so far up.” (Brooke Rollins, n. pag.)
  Trump’s Great American Health Care plan is a brand, nothing more.
  E.g., for a reality check concerning Trump’s glib assertions about how we’re going to achieve lower costs with telemedicine, seeHealth Insurers Are Starting to Roll Back Coverage for Telehealth – Even Though Demand Is Way Up Due to COVID-19” by Jennifer Mallow and Steve Davis, of The Conversation (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 10/28/2020).

For more on President Trump’s unapologetic contributions to the “infodemic” of fake health news circulating globally, see The Associated Press article (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 10/30/2020), “On Virus, Trump and Health Advisers Go their Separate Ways” by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, who documents that “simultaneous contrary messaging” regarding a public health crisis is now considered acceptable if it furthers the president’s goal that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease,” even if this leads to more hospitalizations and deaths (which it has: “The seven-day rolling average for daily new deaths rose over the past two weeks from 704 to 803.”).
  According to most public health officials, the U.S. situation is “tenuous,” with test positive rates on the rise in 44 states, and “more draconian” lockdown measures ahead if we don’t commit to getting control of the highly-infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  According to Trump’s idiosyncratic risk assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic, “we’re rounding the corner” and coming out “a winner” in our battle with the disease; scil.AP FACT CHECK: Trump Sees What Others Do Not in the Pandemic” by Hope Yen and Calvin Woodward of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 10/17/2020). The authors here assess not only Trump’s boasts that “We have done an amazing job.” managing the pandemic, but also the GOP rebranding of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as “corporate welfare for giant health insurance companies,” as well as GOP claims that Obama’s comprehensive healthcare law favors a few Blue states at the expense of the many Red states.
  As he stumps through key battleground states making his case for re-election, President Trump has amped up his populist rhetoric that COVID-19 “is getting too much attention” and “that the virus essentially is not that bad.  ¶   It’s a remarkable case that he’s making, but he’s saying three particular things. He’s saying, one, I got the virus, and I’m doing fine, as will all Americans who get the virus.  ¶   That, of course, is in contrast to the fact we have 229,000 Americans who have died from this virus. The president is also saying now over and over again at these rallies that hospitals and doctors are artificially inflating the numbers of people who have the coronavirus in order to get money.  ¶   We’re seeing health officials push back very hard on that. We had the American Medical Association came out today [10/30/2020] and say that that is a malicious lie, that it is not true.  ¶   The other thing that the president is saying, essentially, is that COVID-19 is getting too much attention from the media. That is a remarkable thing to say, especially when we have 47 states where the virus is surging, and Dr. Birx, our reporting shows, was warning governors on a call today that coronavirus is on the rise and that people need to be vigilant about social distancing and masks.  ¶   But the president thinks he’s making this argument for people who are tired of being in their homes, who are tired of being locked down. He is trying to essentially make the case that people should be able to live their lives freely, and that therapeutics and vaccines will be on the way.  ¶   It’s something that Joe Biden has, of course, really, really attacked and said that the president is not being very responsible. But it is the president’s closing message to the American people.” (Yamiche Alcindor, reporting for the PBS NewsHour in “What Are the 2 Candidates’ Strategies for the Race’s Final Days?”; first aired 10/30/2020)
  Thus, out on the campaign trail on 10/27/2020, President Trump again cherry-picked his pandemic statistics, all the while berating the news media for doing the same (because they’re spotlighting alternative facts that make his administration look bad): “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. Well, we have a spike in cases.  ¶   You ever notice, they don’t use the word death? They use the word cases.” (President Donald J. Trump, qtd. in PBS NewsHour segment, “Candidates Dash to Swing States as Millions of Americans Cast their Ballots”; first aired 10/27/2020)
  This is a marked shift for the president who, only 6 months ago, was desperate to deflect attention from recorded COVID-19 deaths. See, for example, “AP FACT CHECK: Trump Is Not Credible on Virus Death Tolls” by Calvin Woodward and Hope Yen of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/9/2020). The Disqus discussion thread for this 5/9/2020 article includes a comment posted by “Fred,” which I find insightful: “Trump admits to being an optimist. He truly believes it’s going to be alright. Unfortunately he isn’t prepared for when things go wrong. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” (n. pag.)
  “Fred” is correct to point out Trump’s persistent preference for “positive thinking” (the world as he wills it to be) over reality, as documented in Chris Lehmann’s October 2016 book review for The Nation, “Mr. Bright Side: Trump’s Gospel of Positive Thinking.” And if the president weren’t also a serial BSer, there would be small difference between his style of the-glass-is-half-full optimism, and the “aspirational goals” (unfulfilled campaign promises) of establishment politicians such as California’s Governor Newsom, as reported by Dan Walters in his column, “Newsom Undermines his Own Credibility” (posted to the CalMatters website, 5/4/2020).
  Multiple commentators posting to the PBS NewsHour website about the 5/9/2020 AP FACT CHECK have pointed out that all government numbers related to COVID-19 cases and mortality are suspect, and subject to spin: see, e.g. the exchange between “Tomonthebeach” and “Jim Davies” over “government motivations to lie” — whether it be to understate or to overstate the severity of the novel coronavirus crisis.
  President Trump is not wrong to question “the facts” — which are more provisional (especially during an evolving pandemic) than many of us realize — as he did during a Fox News appearance, opining: “I think the 3.4 percent [fatality rate reported by the World Health Organization] is really a false number. Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this and it is very mild. They will get better very rapidly. They don’t even see a doctor. They don’t even call a doctor, you never hear about those people so you can’t put them down in the category, in overall population in terms of this corona flu, or virus. So you just can’t do that.” (qtd. in “No Comment,” The Progressive, 84.2 [April/May 2020]: 11) Indeed, as of May 2020, the global death rate appears to be about 1% (as predicted early on by Dr. Fauci). But no real expert — least of all a research scientist — is pretending to certainty here, which is what makes it so difficult for policy-makers, whom we expect to take trillion-dollar calculated risks with the nation’s physical & fiscal health.
  Nonetheless, when President Trump turns press briefings into bull sessions (as happened on 4/23/2020, when he inappropriately speculated on “injecting disinfectant” and killing off the coronavirus with sunlight; seeAP FACT CHECK: Trump’s Baseless Theories on Coronavirus” by Calvin Woodward and Hope Yen of the Associated Press) and when he spreads fake health news (as in early May 2020, when he suggested that the coronavirus will miraculously disappear, even without a vaccine, and obstinately repeated the falsehood that tests are available to anyone in the U.S. who wants one), the president must be held to account, not allowed to pretend that he was deliberately deploying “euphemism,” or speaking figuratively, or joking, or being “sarcastic.”
  It has been pointed out that Trump supporters enjoy his “impudence” (Hobbes’s phrasing) and uncensored, stream-of-consciousness demagoguery; and that they apply a different interpretive standard to his discourse, taking what he says “seriously,” but not “literally” (whereas Trump critics take him “literally,” but not “seriously”). This observation was first voiced in an article by Salena Zito, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally: The Republican candidate took his case to a shale-industry gathering, and found a welcoming crowd” (posted to The Atlantic website, 9/23/2016). Zito’s observation was later amplified by Peter Thiel: seePeter Thiel Perfectly Summed Up Donald Trump in a Few Sentences”, by Jay Yarow (posted to the CNBC website, 11/9/2016).
  According to Jonah Goldberg, “This seriously-not-literally thing is a great analytical insight into how then-candidate Trump communicated with his supporters. But it is fairly ridiculous hogwash as a prescription for how to treat an actual president, or president-elect, of the United States.  ¶   When Trump says millions of people voted illegally, how should the news media go about taking that indefensible claim ‘seriously but not literally’? Should reporters assume that some number of people voted illegally, but not millions? Or that millions of people voted, but not illegally?  ¶   When Trump says he spoke on the telephone with the president of Taiwan, should China be expected to take that grave violation of diplomatic norms ‘seriously but not literally’?  ¶   Perhaps we shouldn’t take the literally-seriously distinction too literally. Perhaps what Trump supporters really mean is that he should get a free pass whenever his mouth gets him in trouble?” (J. Goldberg, op-ed, “Take Trump Seriously but not Literally? How, exactly?”; posted to the Los Angeles Times website, 12/6/2016) Three-plus years into Trump’s presidency, numerous examples can be added to Goldberg’s starting list, including when President Trump “dismissively told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ‘It’s not like you’ve got China on your border.’” (qtd. in “No Comment,” The Progressive, 84.2 [April/May 2020]: 11) What does it mean to take this statement “seriously but not literally”? Is the world now to ignore the literal truth that India and China have more than 2,000 miles of shared frontier?
  Goldberg’s op-ed usefully compared Trump’s “non-literal” status with that of then-Vice President Joe Biden, who also “has said some absolutely ludicrous things over the years,” concluding: “The non-literal approach to Biden is safe for two reasons. Because he is a well-known character in the Washington establishment, the public knows more or less what to expect from him. And, as a vice president, there’s only so much harm he can do. (In other words, we don’t have to take him too seriously.)  ¶   Trump is different. On his own terms he’s an outsider and a ‘disrupter’ who claims that political elites range from stupid to malevolent. He also has zero experience in foreign or domestic policy. What he says — and how he says it — takes on greater importance precisely because he lacks a track record in public office to put his language in context.” (n. pag.)
  The public expectation that, in formal settings, presidential discourse should rise above the sort of BS we expect to hear at a family bar-b-que, is even more reasonable during an age of global pandemic. Being led through such troubles by a president whom a majority of the country (and the world) can not take “seriously” or “literally” has life-and-death consequences, as Eric Alterman argues in his 3/30/2020 column for The Nation, “Trump’s Deadly Bullshit: The president cannot recognize reality. Amid a pandemic, that’s terrifying”.
  And as we get closer to Trump’s bid for reelection in November 2020, he has begun ramping up a new kind of demogogic double-talk, which will allow him to take credit for anything good that happens (“President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America,” reads the postcard I received from the federal government on 3/24/2020), and to blame someone else (“I take no responsibility.”) for everything that goes awry.
  For another (and I think quite powerful) explanation of President Trump’s inconsistencies, contradictions, and reversals regarding COVID-19 news & numbers, seeThe Coronavirus Was an Emergency until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying: The pandemic has exposed the bitter terms of our racial contract, which deems certain lives of greater value than others,” by Adam Serwer (posted to The Atlantic website, 5/8/2020).


Data Producer Laura Santhanam has written another very good piece on the Trump administration’s latest pushback against unfavorable COVID-19-related data and the public-health experts who are “taking it seriously from a public health perspective” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, in a 10/31/2020 interview with The Washington Post; qtd. in “‘We Can’t Give Up.’ U.S. Can Still Control the Spread of COVID-19, Experts Say” by Laura Santhanam; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 11/2/2020).
  Noting that “There is increasing concern among public health experts that the Trump administration has quietly adopted an implicit policy of natural herd immunity” — with Trump’s White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, announcing 10/25/2020 on CNN, “We’re not going to control the pandemic” — Santhanam explains the real costs of just giving up on expert public health strategies for controlling the highly-infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  There is more on the clash of the public-health brand titans (Trump vs. Fauci) here: “Trump Suggests He Will Fire Fauci in Rift with Disease Expert” by The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 11/2/2020).


Voter survey data suggests that President Trump lost his 2020 bid for re-election in the battleground state of Wisconsin (called for former Vice President Joe Biden by The Associated Press on 11/4/2020) because of his cavalier leadership and inability to control the spread of COVID-19: “Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Wisconsin Voters Choose Biden over Trump” by Laura Santhanam (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 11/4/2020).
  According to Santhanam, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has “disproportionately hurt communities of color, which have reported worse outcomes and higher rates of death from COVID-19 than white communities nationwide.” In Wisconsin, “White voters were almost evenly split with 51 percent for Trump and 48 percent for Biden”; it was Wisconsin’s communities of color, bearing the brunt of the pandemic, who pushed Biden over the top (“nearly 65 percent of non-white voters supported Biden, while another 33 percent were for Trump”).


As the demagoguery around controlling the COVID-19 pandemic grows — and I expect the future former President Trump to continue agitating on the subject, long after he has left office in January 2021 — we should also consider new evidence suggesting that President Trump’s popular common-sense approach to public health — especially, his administration’s reliance on the unscientific policy of “natural herd immunity” — will not work. SeeNursing Home COVID-19 Cases Rise Four-Fold in Surge States” by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 11/8/2020).
  Alonso-Zaldivar here reports on an analysis of federal data from 20 states which are “seeing their highest hospitalization rates for COVID-19”: Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Despite administration efforts to erect a protective shield around nursing homes, “Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities account for about 1% of the U.S. population, but represent 40% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.” (n. pag.)
  “The [Trump] administration has allocated $5 billion to nursing homes, shipped nearly 14,000 fast-test machines with a goal of supplying every facility and tried to shore up stocks of protective equipment. But the data call into question the broader White House game plan, one that pushes states to reopen while maintaining that vulnerable people can be cocooned, even if the virus rebounds around them.  ¶   ‘Trying to protect nursing home residents without controlling community spread is a losing battle,’ said [University of Chicago health researcher, Tamara] Konetzka, a nationally recognized expert on long-term care.” (R. Alonso-Zaldivar, n. pag.)
  “Responding to the study findings, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a statement saying that ‘the bottom line is that the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on nursing homes is complex and multifactorial.’  ¶   The agency noted different ways the [Trump] administration has worked to help nursing homes and said its focus now was on ensuring that residents and staff would ‘immediately’ have access to a vaccine once approved. But it also added that facilities ‘bear the primary responsibility for keeping their residents safe.’  ¶   ‘Many times, the likely causes of nursing home outbreaks are simply nursing homes failing to comply with basic infection control rules,’ the statement said.  ¶   But Konetzka said her research has shown that nursing home quality has no significant effect on cases and deaths once community spread is factored in. ‘It’s not like the high-quality facilities have figured out how to do things better,’ she said. Other academic experts have reached similar conclusions.” (R. Alonso-Zaldivar, n. pag.)
  The bottom line: we know how to control community spread, but lack the will to do so. How much are we willing to sacrifice for our elders and loved ones most at risk for this highly-infectious disease?

U.S. Officials Dispute Trump’s Claim that Beirut Was Attacked” by Lolita C. Baldor and Deb Reichmann of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 8/5/2020) gives yet another example of the way in which Trump-style BS takes hold — starting with the president’s stream-of-consciousness narration of whatever nonsense occurs to him, and then when he is called to account for speaking nonsense, doubling down on his BS, to suggest certainty, just as Hobbes described.
  Taking President Trump’s speech acts “seriously” — not “literally” — is one way his supporters explain away the many verbal blunders which, historically, most of us would deem inappropriate in an elected representative, let alone in the president of the United States. After all, our republican forefathers first stipulated that elected representatives be “persons of knowne integrity and of good conversation” in 1655.
  While we allow all politicians some degree of artistic license, there are limits. The deadly explosion on 8/4/2020 in Beirut (killing at least 135 people, and injuring more than 5,000, according to initial estimates) was one of those occasions when it is imperative that presidential speech acts be taken both seriously and literally. A president in his fourth year of office should have learned how to discuss world events of this magnitude respectfully, with proper decorum. But Donald Trump is still incapable of the requisite code-switching (from electioneering to presidential rhetoric).
  Instead of hearing the truth (no matter how provisional) from the POTUS, we got budding conspiracy theories — President Trump’s own biased first impressions of what he thought he saw in the spectacular video, broadcast with escalating rhetorical certainty: “Trump was asked why he called it an attack and not an accident, especially since Lebanese officials had not yet determined the cause of the explosion. He told reporters at the White House: ‘It would seem like it based on the explosion. I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was. This was not a — some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of a event. … They seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind, yes.’” (L. C. Baldor and D. Reichmann, n. pag.)
  Sadly, such presidential displays of militant ignorance are now the norm. For more examples, see the separate discussion of President Trump’s demagoguery around universal mail-in voting, and see also my detailed analysis of President Trump’s failed performance as a “wartime president.”


[ UPDATE 1 ]  For updates on the Lebanon situation, see Jane Ferguson’s report, one week later, for the PBS NewsHour, “How Deadly Beirut Blasts Pushed Lebanese to their Breaking Point” (first aired 8/11/2020).
  And Zeina Karam of The Associated Press reports on Germany’s sophisticated, strategic response to the Lebanon situation in “Germany’s Foreign Minister Says Country Ready to Help Lebanon, but Reforms Necessary.” Speaking knowledgeably & acting forcefully on behalf of the German people, Heiko Maas observed that “The dimension of devastation and destruction is almost inconceivable for people living in Germany, and therefore it was also so important for the German government to help quickly.” As reported by Karam, “Germany stands ready to help Lebanon with reconstruction and further investment after last week’s massive explosion, but any support will be linked to economic reforms and an end to pervasive corruption in Lebanon, Germany’s foreign minister said Wednesday [8/12/2020].”


[ UPDATE 2 ]  PBS NewsHour Weekend has produced a fascinating report on the budding grassroots movement modeling participatory democracy that is rising from the rubble in Beirut: “As Beirut Rebuilds, Trust in Government Is Low” (first aired 8/23/2020).
  The people’s rejection of a corrupt and ineffective government, and their struggle to form a new social compact in the face of incomprehensible human tragedy, is truly awesome.
  Others besides me have noticed that something extraordinary is happening in Beirut. Posting to the discussion section for this piece, “Jim Davies” writes: “Samir El Khoury: ‘Every single person in this government is a crook, they destroyed our past, they destroyed our present and they’re destroying our future.’  ¶   It’s exactly the same here, and everywhere else.” (n. pag.) And again: “Maroun Karam: ‘And we will not take anything from them. We don’t want them. We just want them to leave, and we’ll take care of the country.’  ¶   Would that all 330 million Americans would emulate Maroun.” (comment posted by “Jim Davies”)

As numerous position papers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have warned — e.g., “Platform Censorship: Lessons From the Copyright Wars” by Corynne McSherry (posted 9/26/2018) — most current schemes for preventing the spread of “fake health news” on social-media platforms have had unintended consequences, sometimes censoring the very voices and “good” content we wish to promote.
  Even the best models for “content moderation” on the Web involve trade-offs, to which we need to give a lot more thought.
  E.g., EFF has argued that “Corporate Speech Police Are Not the Answer to Online Hate” (posted 10/25/2018). EFF acknowledges that a range of players “are trying to articulate better content moderation practices, and we appreciate that goal. But we are also deeply skeptical that even the social media platforms can get this right, much less the broad range of other services that fall within the rubric proposed here. We have no reason to trust that they will, and every reason to expect that their efforts to do so will cause far too much collateral damage.” (Corynne McSherry, n. pag.)
  Seemingly benign calls to treat social-media platforms created and run by corporations as “public forums” actually threaten “the free speech rights of Internet users and the platforms they use.” See the Electronic Frontier Foundation position paper, “EFF To U.S. Supreme Court: Rule Carefully in Free Speech Case about Private Operators, State Actors, and the First Amendment,” by Karen Gullo and David Greene (posted 12/12/2018).
  And laws like FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) — making it illegal to post content on the Internet that “facilitates” prostitution or “contributes” to sex trafficking — have led Internet websites and forums “to censor speech with adult content on their platforms to avoid running afoul of the new anti-sex trafficking law FOSTA. The measure’s vague, ambiguous language and stiff criminal and civil penalties are driving constitutionally protected content off the Internet.  ¶   The consequences of this censorship are devastating for marginalized communities and groups that serve them, especially organizations that provide support and services to victims of trafficking and child abuse, sex workers, and groups and individuals promoting sexual freedom. Fearing that comments, posts, or ads that are sexual in nature will be ensnared by FOSTA, many vulnerable people have gone offline and back to the streets, where they’ve been sexually abused and physically harmed.” See EFF’s position paper, “With FOSTA Already Leading to Censorship, Plaintiffs Are Seeking Reinstatement of their Lawsuit Challenging the Law’s Constitutionality” by Karen Gullo and David Greene (posted 3/1/2019).


And for an alternate model: “Troll Patrol: How Amazon’s Twitch Is Protecting Its LGBT Community: With an aggressive mix of filters, moderators, and lawyers, Twitch is trying to keep the Internet’s horde of harassers at bay” by Jeff Green (posted to Bloomberg News website, 6/28/2019).
  When Twitch was attacked by anonymous trolls on 5/25/2019, it “did something unusual for a major social media platform during an era in which online harassment often goes unchecked for long periods of time. Twitch took immediate and decisive action to protect its community.  ¶   For the next two days, as it grappled with the attackers, Twitch prevented all new users from streaming. It imposed two-factor authentication for certain accounts. And it filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking damages for trademark infringement, breach of contract, and fraud from the anonymous assailants.  ¶   The aggressive countermeasures were part of a broader, ongoing effort by Twitch to carve out a safer space for the 500,000 streamers who go live on the platform each day. The company is particularly mindful of its minority members who often bear the brunt of online harassment. ‘It’s a bit tough to tackle because as many ways as you can shield your community, there are ways that people will come up with to work around it,’ says Katrina Jones, who was hired by Twitch in September [2018] as its first diversity and inclusion executive.” (J. Green, n. pag.)
  The general consensus is that Twitch’s strategy is working. According to one content creator, “The harassment protections ... are appreciated if imperfect. ‘You’re never going to be immune, but it’s a trade-off,’ says Roberts. ‘If I advertise myself as LGBT, I get homophobic and transphobic raiders, but for every one troll, I get 100 people who care for me and I can really connect to.’” (J. Green, n. pag.)
  And again: “‘When it comes to being an LGBT creator on a platform, sometimes it’s a little bit scary and intimidating because of people who say things that aren’t that great,’ says Antphrodite. ‘But Twitch is really great at protecting creators, especially LGBT. It’s the one thing that keeps me from being afraid.’” (J. Green, n. pag.)


A PBS NewsHour Weekend segment raises yet more issues relating to content moderation that we need to think about: “Facebook Moderators Battle Hate Speech and Violence” (first aired 5/4/2019).
  SUMMARY: “Facebook has banned several high-profile accounts it says engage in ‘violence and hate.’ The move also follows several recent acts of violence livestreamed on the company’s site. Facebook employs thousands of people known as moderators, who are on the frontlines of a battle to stop extremist material online. But as The Verge editor Casey Newton tells Hari Sreenivasan, their jobs come at a cost.”
  The fact that full-time immersion in the dark side of Facebook causes long-term PTSD (akin to that experienced by first responders in the brick-and-mortar world) should be a wake-up call for everyone! At the very least, social media giants such as Facebook need to invest much more heavily in content moderation, starting with bringing it in-house (IMO, the “call center model of content moderation,” using subcontractors, is grossly inadequate to the task).
  Casey Newton notes the true value of professional content moderators for users: “And I think that the time has come for us to shift our perspective on what these platforms are and on the value of the work that these folks are doing. Because again, if you take content moderation off of any social network, whether it’s Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit those places quickly become totally unusable. They’re overrun by trolls. You and I would never want to spend any time there. And so because of the work that these folks are doing and because of the really disturbing stuff that they are subjected to and work through they may create a safer world for the rest of us.  ¶   And yet they can be fired for basically anything and then they never get any help from the company that put them into that position. So I do think that that is ripe for rethinking.” (n. pag.)
  I would argue that more professional content moderation is also of great value to business and marketers. Few organizations advertising on social media want their brands associated with terrorism, hate groups, or loathsome content.


As of August 2019, Mark Zuckerberg — “keen to reestablish Facebook as a source of trustworthy information after being used to disseminate Russian-sponsored ‘fake news’ during the 2016 presidential election” — has committed Facebook to more professional content moderation, and is introducing a news curation function to be carried out by professional journalists employed fulltime by Facebook. But this move is sure to fan conservatives’ fears of bias and discrimination, even though there is “no proof that such discrimination happens,” as reported by Jeff Bercovici in “Facebook Turns to Editors: In culture shift for social media giant, ‘News tab’ will highlight stories selected by company’s employees,” (Los Angeles Times, 8/23/2019, p. C3), retitled “Facebook Will Use Journalists to Curate News, Opening Itself to More Bias Allegations” for online posting.
  In addition to giving human beings responsibility for making editorial content decisions, Facebook will continue to “host a much larger volume of algorithmically selected news, personalized through signals such as what pages a user follows on the social network and what content he or she has engaged with,” even though there is ample evidence that the Facebook News Feed is susceptible “to websites that look like news outlets but aren’t. During the last presidential election cycle, phony news stories published for profit or as propaganda outperformed the biggest news publishers, according to a Buzzfeed analysis. To prevent fake news from infiltrating the news tab, Facebook is considering imposing eligibility requirements, only featuring websites that are registered in the company’s news index and barring those with a history of being flagged as misinformation providers.” (J. Bercovici, C3)
  Another important change in the offing: Facebook’s professional editors will try to shift traffic away from so much reposted, repurposed content to “original” news stories. “‘One of the things we want to reward is provenance,’ Brown said.” (J. Bercovici, C3)

As for Facebook’s latest attempt to bypass vexing First Amendment issues — the tech giant reports that it is now censoring inappropriate behavior, not speech, in the digital public square: “‘We’re taking down these pages and accounts based on their behavior [“coordinated inauthentic behavior”], not the content they posted.’” (“Facebook Shuts Down Israel-Based Disinformation Campaigns as Election Manipulation Increasingly Goes Global,” by Craig Timberg and Tony Romm; posted to The Washington Post website, 5/16/2019, n. pag.)


A new example of Facebook going after behavior instead of speech: their censoring “the promotion of events that do not follow social distancing rules.”
  As reported in “Commission Votes to Further Study Gun Ban at Michigan Capitol” by David Eggert of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/11/2020), the nonprofit group Michigan United for Liberty — which is organizing a “Judgment Day” rally for 5/14/2020 at the Michigan state capitol, challenging Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders and other directives — “said on social media Monday [5/11/2020] that Facebook removed its private group” the day before. “The Detroit Metro Times reported the move came after the newspaper had asked Facebook about people threatening violence against Whitmer and others on four private Facebook groups. Facebook said last month it will ban the promotion of events that do not follow social distancing rules.” (n. pag.)
  Michigan lawmakers “said they felt intimidated by armed demonstrators who entered the building openly carrying, including in a public gallery overlooking the Senate.” So they’re worried about possible gun violence, as well as the spread of COVID-19, by the angry mob of protestors being recruited on Facebook.
  Facebook’s actions against Michigan United for Liberty may well draw scrutiny from Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department. On 4/27/2020 President Trump’s AG “ordered federal prosecutors across the U.S. to identify coronavirus-related restrictions from state and local governments ‘that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.’  ¶   The memo to U.S. attorneys directs the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan to coordinate the department’s efforts to monitor state and local policies and take action if needed.  ¶   ‘If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.’” (seeBarr Tells Prosecutors to Look for Unconstitutional Virus Rules” by Michael Balsamo of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 4/27/2020)
  The Michigan connection is suspicious, given President Trump’s “big problem” with Michigan Governor Whitmer, “the young, a woman governor from, you know who I’m talking about, from Michigan.” (qtd. in “Trump Warns Governors to Be ‘Appreciative’” by Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin, and Darlene Superville of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 3/27/2020) Whitmer had “criticized the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic — including on national cable TV shows — saying that the federal government should do more and that Michigan’s allotment of medical supplies from the national stockpile is meager.” Trump was furious: “‘You know,’ he added from the White House, ‘we don’t like to see the complaints.’” (n. pag.)
  A week later, President Trump was on the attack again, railing about governors who “take, take, take and then they complain.” Yet again, he singled out Michigan’s Whitmer: “All she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” (qtd. in “AP FACT CHECK: Trump, ‘wartime’ pandemic leader or ‘backup’?” by Calvin Woodward and Hope Yen of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 4/4/2020)
  Within 4 weeks, President Trump’s AG had delivered his memo assigning the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan to coordinate the Justice Department’s efforts to monitor state and local policies, and take action against governors whom the administration believes have overreached and abused their authority.
  And so the groundwork was laid for a demagogic social-media campaign excoriating (mostly Democratic) governors as “tyrants” and “dictators” of despotic states running roughshod over the constitutional rights of ordinary folk. With President Trump fanning the flames of grievance, and egging on the protestors, individuals feel empowered to rage about being told what to do, and to act out against the establishment. Hence, the grocery shopper who “donned a Ku Klux Klan-style hood at a Santee supermarket out of ‘frustration’ over having to wear a facial covering in public during the coronavirus crisis. [...] When questioned by detectives, the man ‘expressed frustration with having people tell him what he can and cannot do’ during the pandemic, according to a statement from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.  ¶   ‘He said that wearing the hood was not intended to be a racial statement,’ the agency’s statement says. ‘In summary, he said, “It was a mask, and it was stupid.”’” (“San Diego Sheriff Sees No Ground To Charge Santee Shopper Who Wore KKK-Style Hood at Supermarket” by the City News Service; posted to the KPBS website, 5/11/2020)
  Such thoughtless emoting is, indeed, stupid. But it is also an example of the sort of aggressive antisocial behavior exhorted by social-media demagogues, including President Trump. The rampant individualism driving recent “united for liberty” protests shows little concern for the public interest, focusing instead on individual rights, stripped of social obligations — a 21st-century innovation at odds with 17th-century founding sensibilities and laws, which constructed rights & obligations as inseparable.
  Former President Barack Obama also noticed this troubling trend when he “harshly criticized his successor Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Obama told former members of his administration that combating the virus would have been bad even for the best of governments, but it’s been ‘an absolute chaotic disaster’ when the mindset of ‘what’s in it for me’ infiltrates government.” (qtd. in “New Virus Clusters Show Risks of 2nd Wave as Protests Flare” by Frank Jordans and Nomaan Merchant of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/10/2020)
  Facing growing criticism over the federal government’s chaotic response to the novel coronavirus, the Trump administration has made a concerted “effort to try to put the onus for battling the [national] crisis on the states, with Washington [D.C.] meant to play more of a supporting role.  ¶   The administration’s mantra, frequently articulated by Vice President Mike Pence, has long been that the fight against the virus must be ‘locally executed, state managed, and federally supported.’” (“Trump Warns Governors to Be ‘Appreciative’”, n. pag.)
  Given the fiery libertarian rhetoric and intense media coverage of the street spectacles organized online, it is easy to forget that the large silent majority in the U.S. (60% according to early-May 2020 polling) reasons that the federal government — not the states, or local officials — should take the lead in procuring PPE, securing adequate testing, and combating the virus. At times like this, we don’t want the federal government relegated to a support role, but actively seeking the common good, and looking after the public interest.


[ UPDATE ]  President Trump’s Justice Department has made good on William Barr’s 4/27/2020 directive to look for unconstitutional virus rules in state and local stay-at-home mandates, targeting California twice in May 2020.
  As reported by Kathleen Ronayne of the Associated Press, “On Tuesday [5/19/2020], the U.S. Justice Department sent a letter to [California Governor] Newsom saying his order violates the Constitution. Lawyers representing a Lodi church that filed a lawsuit against Newsom said Wednesday they expect more than 3,000 churches will hold services on May 31.” (“Ventura County, First In SoCal Approved for Faster Reopening,” posted to the KPBS website, 5/20/2020)
  Next, a “vague letter” was sent to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer from Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband warning that “Reports of your recent public statements indicate that you suggested the possibility of long-term lockdown of the residents in the city and county of Los Angeles, regardless of the legal justification for such restrictions”; “We remain concerned about what may be an arbitrary and heavy-handed approach to continuing stay-at-home requirements.” (qtd. in “U.S. Warns Los Angeles Stay-at-Home Extension Could Be Illegal” by Brian Melley of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/22/2020) Like other commentators on this story, I interpret this as federal overreach: “Barr should be disbarred. He knows that public health safety protocol doesn’t work top-down. Whatever the lowest level of government decides is locally more safe will stand. Higher levels of government can set minimums but can’t impose reduction of stricter needs. LA is an incorporated municipality. Trump can go fish. Courts will back LA. Gov. Newsom can’t dictate public health safety relaxation to LA either, and says so.” (comment posted by “Candid One,” n. pag.)
  Nor is the Trump administration’s demand that state & local governments reopen churches grounded in any constitutional law which guarantees religious freedom.
  The growing conflict between federal vs. state vs. local powers over government lockdowns is clearly shaping up to be a central theme of the presidential campaign heading into the November 2020 election. Democratic governors and mayors (such as Newsom and Garcetti) are both claiming that, unlike the Trump administration, their plans for reopening “would be guided by science and data rather than politics.” In an interview with Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour, California’s Governor Newsom explained his reasoned practice of festina lente in the state’s four-stage reopening: “Look, we have had stability now for many, many weeks, over a month.  ¶   As you know, we never saw the peak increase in the total number of cases and deaths that many other parts of the country did. So, over the period of many, many weeks, we have not only seen stability, but a modest decline in hospitalizations, ICU patients and the like.  ¶   We have also seen a significant increase in our testing capacity and, moreover, our ability to procure and distribute protective gear within sectors of our economy, not just for our front-line health officials.  ¶   So, we’re in a better position than we have ever been. And that’s why we’re moving into this new phase, but with our eyes wide open, driven by data, driven by evidence, not ideology, and driven by transparency now at the local level, so we can toggle back if conditions change.” (“Newsom: California Reopening ‘Driven by Evidence, not Ideology’”; first aired 5/19/2020)
  Instead of proceeding in slow haste, the Trump administration is pushing for “a fast reopening” and politicizing the science involved: “Republican political operatives are recruiting ‘extremely pro-Trump’ doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.” (“Republican Operatives Front ‘Pro-Trump’ Doctors to Prescribe Rapid Reopening” by Michael Biesecker and Jason Dearen of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/20/2020)
  As the president’s campaign pursues this alternative course, new evidence indicates that “‘We’ve been chasing a bit of a false narrative that the economic hit is about the restrictions and not the disease itself,’ said Julia Coronado, president and founder of Macropolicy Perspectives, an economic research consulting firm. ‘The economic story really isn’t about lockdowns, and we’re going to make mistakes by pursuing that narrative. It really is about the disease, and how fearful people are about getting sick, and how businesses are going to operate in a world where this virus is with us.’” (“Reopening Reality Check: Georgia’s Jobs Aren’t Flooding Back: A month after easing lockdown restrictions, the state is still seeing a steady stream of unemployment claims, economic data shows” by Megan Cassella; posted to POLITICO’s website, 5/21/2020; reference courtesy “John B, Des Moines,” commenting on this AP story)
  Hoping to counter workers’ lack of confidence in present health & safety protections in many workplaces, Republican senators are joining the Trump administration in crafting an aid package with enticements for workers, such as “a one-time $1,200 bonus to get back to work,” instead of extending unemployment benefits, which they argue “‘handcuff’ workers and discourage them from returning to work.” SeeGOP Weighs Jobless Aid Cuts to Urge Americans Back to Work” by Lisa Mascaro of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/21/2020).

Not only is President Trump locked in a war of words with the mainstream media over “fake news” (public criticism of his administration). Beginning the week of 5/25/2020, he is fending off editorial oversight by new media, which used to give him free reign on their platforms. No longer. Twitter has begun fact-checking & moderating President Trump’s speech (the same as they do all other users of their privately-owned platform) for violations of their Terms of Service.
  First, Twitter looked to the public interest in mail-in voting, and disrupted the president’s alarmist narrative about voting fraud. Trump responded intemperately with threats of actions (“We will strongly regulate, or close them down”) which he is powerless to effect: seeTrump Threatens Social Media after Twitter Fact-Checks Him” by the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/27/2020). Given this disjunction between res and verba, I can only surmise that this is yet another situation (as Reihan Salam pointed out back in July 2018) where the president’s rhetoric (being perceived as taking forceful action on behalf of “conservative voices” which have felt disempowered for too long) is judged more important than the reality (who actually triumphs over whom) in Trump’s tug of war with the media.
  Then at the end of an eventful week, Twitter “added a warning to one of President Donald Trump’s tweets about protests in Minneapolis [following the police slaying of George Floyd on 5/25/2020], saying it violated the platform’s rules about ‘glorifying violence’”: seeTwitter Adds ‘Glorifying Violence’ Warning to Trump Tweet” by the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/29/2020). Just the day before (5/28/2020), Trump had “targeted Twitter and other social media companies by signing an executive order challenging the laws that generally protect them from liability for material users post on their platforms.  ¶   The order directs executive branch agencies to ask independent rule-making agencies including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to study whether they can place new regulations on the companies, though experts express doubts much can be done without an act of Congress.  ¶   The president and fellow conservatives have claimed for years that Silicon Valley tech companies are biased against them. But there is no evidence for this, and while the executives and many employees of Twitter, Facebook and Google may lean liberal, the companies have stressed they have no business interest in favoring one political party over the other.” (n. pag.)
  President Trump then pivoted from offense to defense, “walking back his post-midnight ‘thugs’ tweet about Minneapolis protesters that added to outrage over the police killing of a black man,” and claiming that “his comments had been misconstrued,” after the inflammatory rhetoric of his flagged tweet led to “hours of backlash”: seeTrump’s Tweet about Rioters Echoes 1960s Miami Police Chief” by Aamer Madhani and Rhonda Shafner of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 5/29/2020).
  “Twitter’s decision to flag Trump’s tweet — the second time it has acted this week — came a day after he signed an executive order challenging the social media giant’s protections against lawsuits as he accuses it of stifling conservative voices. The warning label prevented the tweet from being shared or liked, though it could still be viewed by users. The White House, trying to skirt the blockage, reposted the message on its own official Twitter account Friday morning [5/29/2020]. Twitter quickly flagged that tweet, too, accusing the White House of promoting violence.” (A. Madhani and R. Shafnern, n. pag.)
  “Trump has been accused of stoking racial tensions and exploiting divisions for personal gain since long before he ran for president, beginning with the full-page ads he ran in 1989 calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, five young men of color who were wrongly convicted of assaulting a white jogger.” (A. Madhani and R. Shafnern, n. pag.)
  Look for the demagoguery to amp up in the coming months, as the president tries to persuade voters that his private interests coincide with theirs: What’s Good for Trump Is Good for America (Alan Dershowitz’s “mixed-motive” argument during the impeachment hearings, equating the president’s private interest in maintaining power with the public interest — a traditionally monarchistic view of the body politic).
  President Trump believes it is in his best interest to suppress his critics along with the popular vote, and to this end, there will be a social-media blitzkrieg around the politics of mail-in voting, as well as the upcoming census.
  The barrage of misinformation over the census has already caused Facebook “to clamp down on attempts to use its services to interfere with the 2020 U.S. census, including the posting of misleading information about when and how to participate, who can participate and what happens when people do”: seeFacebook to Tackle Efforts to Interfere with 2020 US census” by Barbara Ortutay and Mae Anderson of the Associated Press (posted to the AP website, 12/19/2019). Facebook’s new census policy — “defining misleading census posts as a violation of its community standards and thus subject to removal” — took effect in January 2020.
  “Google is also trying to prevent misinformation about the census from spreading. It set up a team to focus on preventing hoaxes and misleading information. It also expanded a YouTube policy to make it clear that misinformation about the census is prohibited on the site and will be taken down.” (B. Ortutay & M. Anderson, n. pag.)
NOTE:  The census has been a cornerstone of Anglo-American democracy since the founding of this country in the early 17th century. The first census in Anglo-America dates from 1619.


[ UPDATE 1 ]  The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) filed suit on 6/2/2020 to block President Donald Trump’s executive order that seeks to regulate social media, arguing that the presidential order violates the First Amendment “by demonstrating the willingness to use government authority to retaliate against those who criticize the government”: “The government cannot and should not force online intermediaries into moderating speech according to the president’s whims,” charged the CDT’s CEO (qtd. in “Tech-Rights Group Sues Trump to Stop Social-Media Order” by Tali Arbel of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/2/2020).


[ UPDATE 2 ]  Twitter has again circumscribed President Trump’s demagoguery: “Twitter Disables Trump Campaign’s George Floyd Video Tribute” by the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/5/2020).
  This time, the social media platform acted because of a copyright violation in the Trump campaign video: “‘Per our copyright policy, we respond to valid copyright complaints sent to us by a copyright owner or their authorized representatives,’ Twitter said in a statement. It did not say who made the complaint.” (n. pag.)


[ UPDATE 3 ]  With social-media platforms cracking down on his “impudent” speech acts, the Trump campaign has turned to potent symbolism in order to reach target audiences with data-driven demagoguery.
  And once again, social media is regulating the president’s more outrageous disinformation campaigns: seeFacebook Removes Trump Ads with a Symbol Once Used by Nazis” by Eric Tucker and Barbara Ortutay of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/18/2020).
  Facebook contends that the Trump campaign ads “violated ‘our policy against organized hate’” and that Facebook “does not permit symbols of hateful ideology ‘unless they’re put up with context or condemnation.’”
  As with all symbolic communications, the meaning of the offending symbol (which the Trump campaign has claimed functions like an emoji) is more metaphorical than literal, and President Trump has taken full advantage of this ambiguity in associating the symbol with the anti-fascist political movement, Antifa, which the president hopes to use as a foil for his 2020 re-election campaign.


[ UPDATE 4 ]  Social media’s big-brand advertisers such as Unilever — which in June 2020 pulled its U.S. advertising on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram through at least the end of the year — are also taking a public stance against false news and proliferating hate speech online, contending that “the polarized atmosphere in the United States ahead of November’s presidential election placed responsibility on brands to act.”
  Facebook responded on 6/26/2020 with a pledge to “flag all ‘newsworthy’ posts from politicians that break its rules, including those from President Donald Trump.” For details, seeFacebook to Label All Rule-Breaking Posts, Including Trump’s” by Barbara Ortutay of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/26/2020).
  It’s good to see the big brands finally take a principled stand like this. As Goodman & Kornbluh made clear in their 2019 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, brand advertiser boycotts which threaten Big Tech profits (Ortutay reports that “Shares of both Facebook and Twitter fell roughly 7% following Unilever’s announcement.”) should help cancel out the toxic social-media culture (where outrage, fake or not, commands the most attention and ratings).
  But, there are those who think big brand advertiser boycotts will not be enough to force substantive, lasting change: “The question is, will Facebook change the fundamental aspects of a system which promotes or amplifies, let’s say, the sensational content, the divisive content that people respond to more than just ordinary posts? That really is the root of the problem. [...] The advertisers who have left aren’t a giant percentage of Facebook’s revenues. And they are influential and important, but a lot of them are going to come back, because Facebook is such an effective advertising tool for them. I think the serious problem for Facebook is its own employees. Zuckerberg has to placate them.” (Steven Levy, editor at large for Wired, qtd. in “How Advertiser Boycott Could Yield ‘Watershed Moment’ for Facebook,” a PBS NewsHour report by Stephanie Sy, first aired 7/3/2020)


[ UPDATE 5 ]  Eric Alterman also feels that the “Facebook advertising pause by more than 970 companies, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, and Starbucks,” while “helpful,” will have a limited effect: “Still, the company’s top 100 advertisers provide only 6 percent of its income, while small businesses account for more than 70 percent. And they do not have nearly as many alternatives. Most people I know, myself included, do not want to quit Facebook, especially during a socially isolating pandemic.  ¶   So here’s my idea: Let’s just boycott the ads. Don’t click on them. That way, even the small advertisers will have to find new outlets unless Facebook changes its policies. Spread the word … via Facebook.” (E. Alterman, “Ad Nauseated: Facebook Narrows its Users’ Interests and Fuels their Ignorance with Lies,” The Nation, 27 July/3 August 2020, vol. 311, no. 2, pp. 7–8)

With the U.S. presidential election in November 2020 only 4 months away, Jeff Greenfield has called attention to President Trump’s growing demagoguery over mail-in voting, noting that it “is frankly baffling to try to tease out the president’s argument. He says absentee voting is fine, but mail-in ballots are rife with fraud”; in fact, “There is no difference. [...] it is, as lawyers like to say [...] a distinction without a difference.” (J. Greenfield in “Trump’s Campaign Strategy to Focus on Statues, ‘Traditional American Values’”; a PBS NewsHour Weekend segment, first aired 7/5/2020)
  Technically, Greenfield is correct. As Wikipedia makes clear, “Postal voting in the United States, domestically referred to as vote-by-mail, mail-in voting, or Vote from Home, is a form of absentee ballot in the United States [emphasis added], in which a ballot is mailed to the home of a registered voter, the voter fills it out and returns it via postal mail or drops off the ballot in-person into a secure drop box or at a voting center.” (Wikipedia, s.v. Postal Voting in the United States, n. pag.; accessed 7/8/2020)
  But absentee voting is, by its very nature, more selective than the convenient Vote from Home options: absentee ballots must be requested ahead of time by voters, and only “half the states and territories” in the U.S. “allow ‘no excuse absentee,’ where no reason is required to request an absentee ballot; other states require a valid reason, such as infirmity or travel.” (Wikipedia, s.v. Absentee Ballot, n. pag.; accessed 7/8/2020) In contrast, mass mail-in voting — which guarantees easy access to absentee ballots by all registered voters — encourages universal suffrage and is known to increase voter turnout.
  President Trump believes (wrongly, IMO) that increased voter turnout favors Democrats over Republicans.
  He also believes (rightly, IMO) that absence (physical distance from candidates and galvanizing crowds of their fervent supporters) favors less polarizing politicians than he is. IMO, Trump’s intuitive practice of divide et impera is what won him the presidency, against all odds, and the only thing that will keep it for him. His presidential campaigns (and term in office) rely on the sort of division and grievance stoked by new and mainstream media. But his hold over and manipulation of a deeply-polarized electorate is, at the same time, always tenuous. Trump’s tail-wagging-the-dog presidency needs the authentication offered by a visible, energized crowd to keep it alive. And the spectacle of mass support (suggesting that Trump and/or a partisan, vocal minority represent the absent “silent majority”) cannot be sustained under asocial conditions like thoughtful solitude.
  This may be yet another reason why President Trump is going after the U.S. Postal Service and impugning the integrity of voting by mail: in his interview with the PBS NewsHour (“The Vital Role of the U.S. Postal Service in American Elections,” first aired 8/3/2020), Spencer Cox, lieutenant governor of Utah, notes that not only has universal mail-in voting “doubled voter turnout” in his state; it also “leads to a more informed voter.” Voters “get their ballot two to three weeks before the election. They have an opportunity to actually do some research, to get informed, contact the candidates, visit their Web site, make that decision, and then mail it back.  ¶   It’s been a very popular thing here in the state of Utah.”
  A more informed voter is less swayed by Trump-style demagoguery. As such, President Trump actively opposes new Vote from Home schemes which would “radically alter our way of voting” and “rig the election by sending out tens of millions of mail-in ballots, using the China virus as the excuse for allowing people not to go to the polls.” (qtd. in “Trump’s Attacks Seen Undercutting Confidence in 2020 Vote” by Jill Colvin of the Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/28/2020)
  At the same time, Trump, who is himself an absentee voter, “has voiced support for the use of absentee ballots when voters have a legitimate reason, although he has not said whether that includes fear of contracting the virus.” (J. Colvin, n. pag.) His recent rhetoric, aggressively pushing voting in person for the masses, implies it does not.
  Hoping to suppress the vote of the majority who oppose him, President Trump resorts to his usual demagoguery, justifying his anti-American stance on suffrage by insinuating that real patriots go to the polls, no matter the wartime hazards. “People went to the polls and voted during World War I. They went to the polls and voted during World War II. We can safely go to the polls and vote during COVID-19,” self-proclaimed “wartime president” Donald Trump told an audience of young supporters at Dream City megachurch in Phoenix on 6/23/2020. (qtd. in J. Colvin, n. pag.)
  Of course, the president here falsely compares apples & oranges, since U.S. voters during World Wars I and II were not under any known physical threat, as we know statistically to be the case in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic which, as of early July 2020, has killed over 130,000 U.S. inhabitants.
  And once again, the president’s rhetoric is at odds with present-day reality, as evidenced by the disastrous June 2020 primary election in the battleground state of Georgia, where “People waited in line up to eight hours to cast ballots, and poll workers struggled with new machines on which they hadn’t been trained due to the pandemic.” Such dedication to exercising the privileges and duties of citizenship, despite the state’s attempts at disfranchisement, goes well beyond what ought to be required of voters in a modern republic such as ours.
  NOTA BENE  In this case, as in so many others, President Trump — acting more like a monarch, enmeshed in dynastic power politics, than an elected representative of the people, sworn to “promote the General Welfare” (preamble to the U.S. Constitution) — is on the wrong side of history. Anglo-America’s 17th-century founders were committed to universal male suffrage, and to the republican principle of no taxation without representation. President Trump’s resistance to these founding principles — including convenience in voting — puts his own private interest before the public good, as did Charles II in 1676 when he sought to suppress the popular vote in his Anglo-American colonies, in keeping with “the custome of England” and the interests of monarchy.


President Trump’s latest demagoguery spreading alarm about mass mail-in voting: “Trump Faces Pushback for Urging People to Vote Twice as Test” by Deb Riechmann and Jonathan Drew of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/3/2020).
  The president made a spectacularly ignorant statement on the campaign trail in Wilmington, North Carolina on 9/2/2020, “urging voters in North Carolina to vote by mail and then try to vote again in person to test the mail-in ballot system in the Nov. 3 election.” President Trump’s exact words: “So, let them send it in and let them go vote.” (qtd. in D. Riechmann & J. Drew, n. pag.)
  In general, voting more than once is a crime in the U.S., and even if it weren’t, this is a really silly idea. It is not up to individual voters to build redundancy into a system designed to ensure one-person-one-vote. Instead of serving as a mechanism “to check their vote” (as President Trump phrased it), redundant ballots will just gum up the works, causing even more delays in getting out the final count, since the Registrar of Voters will have to do extra work to validate your vote. (In California, you are supposed to “surrender your mail ballot” if you vote in person, and if you can’t do that, you will be given a “provisional ballot” when you vote in person, with special forms to fill out, which will add considerably to the time it takes to vote and to verify your vote.)
  Indeed, should you follow President Trump’s advice, you, yourself, will be voiding your mail-in ballot, for no good reason, since there are far better ways in states like California to check that your mail-in ballot has been properly processed.
  Predictably, President Trump’s demagoguery on the subject has sparked outrage among those who take his speech acts “literally” — “North Carolina’s attorney general, Democrat Josh Stein, said it is outrageous for the president to suggest that people ‘break the law in order to help him sow chaos in our election.’” — and among those who take his speech acts “seriously,” choosing to generously interpret what they hear — “White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News Channel on Thursday [9/3/2020], ‘This idea that he is encouraging people to vote twice is yet another example of the media taking him out of context and ignoring the facts.’” (D. Riechmann & J. Drew, n. pag.) Commenting on this story in the related Disqus discussion thread, “Ryan Evans” posted: “I’m giving the president the benefit of the doubt on this mangled public statement. He just mis-spoke about something he appears to know very little about.” (n. pag.)
  I choose to explain the president’s word salad as yet another example of Trump-style rhetorical impudence. And I agree with the several comments about Trump’s rhetorical strategy posted to Disqus by “TheRealRupertPupkin,” including: “When [will the media] finally understand that Trump doesn’t believe anything he says? He is simply feeding the outrage machine because it sucks all the air out of the room, and the media just plays along.”
  “[...] this has been his political strategy from Day One. Look at me, look at me, look at me. The advantage is, so long as the media is playing along with his outrage game they aren’t reporting on other things. And they will play along. They can’t seem to help themselves (or us).”
  “The voter fraud story is phony, but it never goes away because every time Trump yanks that chain the media falls all over themselves to report on it. I’m not talking about his fitness, I am talking about his strategy. To the everlasting shame of the media (and us) it works.” (3 comments posted by “TheRealRupertPupkin”)


Attorney General William Barr is even better at articulating President Trump’s allegations about the potential for widespread fraud with universal mail-in voting (where every registered voter — correctly, and not — is mailed a ballot): “U.S. Attorney General Barr Attacks Voting by Mail while in Arizona” by Bob Christie of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/10/2020).
  During a visit to Arizona, Barr emphasized that with traditional in-person secret voting, “you can’t sell your vote, no one can intimidate you, no one can buy your vote.” “He went on to say voters could be coerced to cast their vote a certain way if they get a mail ballot, and said there might be situations where someone in a nursing home is persuaded to let others fill out their ballot.” “‘And finally the fact that ballots are mailed out profligately the way they would be, many of them misdirected we know because of inaccuracy of voting lists, there are going to be ballots floating around and collected,’ [Barr] said.” (qtd. B. Christie, n. pag.)
  Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs immediately pushed back, pointing to Arizona’s “decades-long history of secure and reliable ballot-by-mail procedures” and shaming “high-ranking officials” for “sowing doubt in our democratic institutions.” (qtd. B. Christie, n. pag.)
  I believe that widespread voting fraud in the U.S. is a manufactured crisis of the sort first used in the 1670s against low-status, independent-minded “persons who haveing served their tyme are ffreemen of this country” — hence able, because of universal male suffrage in Virginia, to challenge the status quo by raising “tumults at the election.” In 2020, as in 1670, would-be absolute executives raise the alarm about “the disturbance of his majesties peace” in order to justify suppressing the popular vote.
  Nonetheless, it is also true that “The potential challenges facing voting in the fall are varied and costly to address in a short time frame, leaving many uncertain of what lies ahead for the high-stakes November [2020] election.” (Candice Norwood, “States Take Lessons from Chaotic Primary Season to Prepare for an Unprecedented Election,” posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/10/2020) Norwood’s webessay takes a candid look at some of the real (vs. rhetorical) problems with U.S. voting systems — both in person, and by mail. Tending to “soe greate a trust” — especially in an age of hyped-up social media and data-driven demagoguery — is no small feat, and our election officials (along with the post office) have their work cut out for them in the months ahead.

Now that President Trump has effectively invalidated the upcoming November 2020 presidential election — by persuading a multitude of supporters that if he loses, ipso facto, the election will have been “rigged” — it’s time to plan “A Way to Head Off a Contested Election: It worked in the 1870s: Congress should set up a commission to resolve disputed electoral results,” as outlined in the op-ed by Bruce Ackerman and Ro Khanna (Los Angeles Times, 9/13/2020, p. A16).
  “For the 2020 election, Congress should immediately create a commission similar to the Tilden-Hayes panel. In this case, the right makeup would be five Supreme Court justices — two liberals and two conservatives, with [SCOTUS’s Chief Justice John] Roberts as chairman. If the commission began monitoring the electoral process now, it could make fact-sensitive judgments on the accuracy of state vote counts come January.... During the last few months, the Roberts court has frequently demonstrated a capacity to transcend the partisan divide and issue opinions that gained the broad support of a strong majority of justices. There is good reason to believe that a Roberts-led commission, backed by career professionals in the Department of Justice, would act with the same sense of responsibility in resolving a contested [state] election.” (B. Ackerman & R. Khanna, A16)


While President Trump spreads “disinformation about mail voting, falsely claiming it is highly vulnerable to fraud and is a conspiracy against him,” Democrats “and progressive groups continue to highlight the fights over the post office [in particular, “the tumultuous tenure of Louis DeJoy, the Trump loyalist now running the mail”] in fundraising campaigns, which often suggest that mail voting could be imperiled, further confusing voters.” Both narratives are distractions from the real issue: the importance of mailing ballots early.
  As pointed out by Evan Halper in “Why Mail-In Ballots Might Go Uncounted: States’ impossible deadlines threaten to disenfranchise more voters than recent troubles at the USPS” (Los Angeles Times, 9/13/2020, p. A7), the Post Office is not to blame should a projected million mail-in ballots go uncounted this fall.
  “[E]lection experts say recent controversies surrounding the post office and Trump’s campaign of disinformation about mail-in voting are mostly sideshows. The bigger dangers for voters predate this administration and involve election officials in the states.  ¶   When ballots get tossed, one of the most common reasons is that states mislead voters into thinking they can safely wait until a day or two before election day to drop them in the mail. Even when the post office is running on all cylinders, that isn’t enough time to guarantee votes will be counted in many states.” “The key is that voters have to allow enough time for their ballots to arrive, and states need to provide accurate information about the deadlines.” (E. Halper, A7)
  “The message that should be directed at voters [...] is that mail voting will work fine if ballots are mailed back at least a week before election day.” And “ballots not returned by the week before the election should be brought to drop boxes set up at polling places, election offices and elsewhere.” (E. Halper, A7)
  “In California, more than 100,000 ballots went uncounted during this year’s primary, about 1.5% of the nearly 7 million cast. More than two-thirds of those were discarded because they arrived too late. Most of the rest had missing or defective signatures.  ¶   For November, the state has extended the deadline for receipt of ballots by two weeks, as long as they are postmarked by election day.” (E. Halper, A7)
  However, “In other states, proposals to extend ballot deadlines or take other steps to avoid disenfranchising voters have stalled amid a coordinated push by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee against expanded use of mail-in ballots.” “In 34 states, officials ignore Postal Service guidance to set a deadline for distributing absentee ballots to voters more than seven days before the election.” Moreover, “The COVID-19 pandemic and legal fights over how voting should be carried out are causing frequent changes in state rules.” (E. Halper, A7) Scil.Judge Extends Wisconsin Absentee Cutoff to 6 Days after Election” by Scott Bauer and Todd Richmond of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/21/2020).
  As such, “‘We are encouraging every single voter to know the rules and make a plan,’ said Wendy Fields, executive director of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of progressive groups working to expand voting rights.  ¶   ‘This is a high-information moment. We are making sure folks are checking their registration, getting the ballot, getting it done and getting it in the mail,’ Fields said.” (E. Halper, A7)
  This is sound advice, unlike President Trump’s ignorant suggestion that people “test” the system by engaging in a criminal act (voting more than once) which will achieve the exact opposite of what you intend.
  Educating yourself about “the deadline for ballots to be delivered to election officials” in your state, and planning ahead for this, is the smart way to take individual responsibility and help ensure the integrity of the vote.
  And the sooner you get started on your election plan, the better. Even in states with “the most voter-friendly rules,” like California, getting your vote counted is a lot more complicated than it should be.
  I have now re-registered to vote 3 times this year (on 3/7/2020, when I applied for a “Real ID”; on 8/19/2020, after state records couldn’t correctly process the hyphen in my last name, resulting in a false voter registration; and on 9/7/2020, when I again tried to correct my last name on the voter rolls by removing the hyphen and running the two hyphenated words together as one, which is how I was previously registered in the state of California through March 2020). All of this was to no avail and, as of 9/25/2020, I am still unable to correct my last name on the voter rolls. The new voter registration card I received in the mail on 9/22/2020 still shows my last name beginning with P (fake identity) instead of T (real, legal identity).
  With the election less than 6 weeks away, I have written to the Registrar of Voters for San Diego County about my inability to register my Real ID in time for the November 2020 election.
  It’s entirely possible that I will end up disenfranchised, through no fault of my own, for this critical election (I am especially concerned that my votes for state senator and assemblymember — opposing my two fake representatives in Sacramento — be properly counted).
  Indeed, as I’ve documented here, this disenfranchisement may have already happened, given that “In California, more than 100,000 ballots went uncounted during this year’s primary [3 March 2020], about 1.5% of the nearly 7 million cast. More than two-thirds of those were discarded because they arrived too late. Most of the rest had missing or defective signatures.” (E. Halper, A7)
  Back in April, Dan Walters asked “So what’s not to like about all-mail voting?” in California, pointing out that the usual political calculations, on left and right, mislead us: “Democrats do believe that mail voting will help them win close elections, and Republicans fear that they are right. However, the Public Policy Institute of California, in a recent report, contends that those hopes and fears may be misplaced, saying, ‘these scenarios describe the status quo; they don’t tell us how election results might change if vote by mail became more widely available. When election jurisdictions — including some California counties — have rapidly expanded vote by mail, neither major party has clearly benefited.’” (Dan Walters, “Mail Voting OK, If Done Right”, column posted to the CalMatters website, 4/30/2020)
  More worrisome, according to Walters, is that with mass by-mail voting “local election officials gain a huge amount of power to affect close elections by deciding which mail ballots are valid, as shown by what’s happening in San Joaquin County regarding a three-way contest for the 13th Assembly District.  ¶   Second place — and thus a spot on the November ballot — was decided by 30 votes in a final report issued by the county’s registrar of voters, Melinda Dubroff, on April 5, even though Newsom’s order gave her until April 24 to complete the count. The candidate on the short end complained that in her rush, Dubroff disregarded affidavits from 32 voters that their ballots had been improperly discarded, and the situation is now in court for resolution.” (D. Walters, n. pag.)
  Even in voter-friendly California, it’s picayune electoral matters — like a missing hyphen — that have an outsized effect on our democracy and can make or break a safe, fair, and secure election.


What in California looks to be a matter of bureaucratic bungling and incompetent information design (vs. evidence of intentional voter suppression) is in some other states an “insidious tactic [used] to eliminate people whose voter registration cards do not exactly match the spelling, address, etc. on other state records. Under these ‘no match/no vote’ laws, a missing comma, middle initial, or hyphen can cancel your voting rights. In 2018, less than a month before the general election, Georgia’s GOP secretary of state, Brian Kemp, used this exact-match pretense to place a hold on 53,000 voters, 80% of whom were in minority groups. By the way, Kemp was at the same time running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, and his ‘winning’ margin closely matched the number of would-be voters he nullified.” (Jim Hightower, “Six Ways the Right Is Shredding the Vote,” The Hightower Lowdown, vol. 22, no. 8, Sept. 2020, p. 2)
  Hightower, too, argues that the Post Office is perfectly capable of handling mass mail-in voting: “USPS workers could securely handle our ballots in the coming election, making it easier and safer for America to vote. But that would increase turnout and democracy – two things Trump hates. Bizarrely, in May, he even screeched about the danger of roving bands of children: ‘Kids go and they raid the mailboxes, and they hand them to people that are signing the ballots down the end of the street. You don’t think that happens?’ Except, of course, it’s only happening in his head.” (J. Hightower, 3)
  Whenever Pesident Trump spins such fantastic dystopian narratives about mass mail-in voting, it’s worth remembering that absentee voting prevents the Trump campaign from using vote-suppression tactics which work only with in-person voting: “Over and above legal machinations, one of the GOP’s tried-and-true vote-suppression techniques is deploying squads of partisan muscle into non-white, immigrant, and other Democratic-leaning neighborhoods and precincts. These ‘poll watchers’ single out voters they view as ‘suspicious’ and accuse them of trying to vote illegally. They aren’t subtle. Sometimes packing guns, badges, cameras, arm bands, etc. to pose as official ballot police, they literally pull people out of line to loudly demand proof of eligibility. It’s ugly and frighteningly autocratic … and yet legal in many states.  ¶   And it’s going to be bigger than ever this November, because its one legal restriction has been lifted. Back in 1982, Republican thuggishness had gotten so out of hand that a federal judge imposed a consent decree to stop some of the crudest intimidation methods. But, with the Trump campaign’s support, that ban was withdrawn in 2018, and this year’s presidential election will be the first in four decades to allow no-holds-barred voter intimidation. It’s ‘a huge, huge, huge, huge deal,’ exulted a top Trump campaign lawyer to a Republican group last November. He promised that the party’s 2020 poll patrol programs would be ‘much bigger … much more aggressive [and] much better funded.’ Indeed, the national party has been recruiting and training up to 50,000 partisans to confront voters in 15 key states! Adding to the mayhem, True the Vote, a manic fringe group of Trumpeteers, is signing up a freelance militia that includes off-duty police and veterans to enforce ‘ballot security’ in communities of color. The group leader explained the scheme at a February meeting of Republican operatives: ‘You get some [Navy] Seals in those polls, and they’re going to say “No, no. … This is how we’re going to play this show.”’” (J. Hightower, 2–3)
  So, when Attorney General Barr worries that honest debate in a private setting might convince the weak-minded to change their votes (thus framing the time-honored practice of persuasion as coercion), and when he asserts that in-person voting best protects us against voter intimidation and coercion, he is conveniently ignoring the very real threat posed to voting rights by the 50,000 troops of “GOP-hired, out-of-county ‘poll watchers’” who will be deployed against in-person voters come November.
  In my book, gun-toting militiamen who feel empowered to profile and accost registered voters while we wait patiently in line, like sitting ducks, are the real source of intimidation in our electoral process. Were I still an in-person voter, I would switch to absentee voting this year based solely on this consideration (fear of violence, perpetrated by outside agitators, at polling places).
  But others who wish to ensure an accurate count of the popular vote now recommend in-person voting, especially for those hoping to vote Trump out, who fit the profile of registered voters whose mail-in ballots are sure to be targeted by Trump campaign/GOP-hired “poll watchers.” See, for example, William Brangham’s interview of journalist Barton Gellman for the PBS NewsHour, “Why the Presidential Election Result Could Take Days or Weeks — and Become Chaotic” (first aired 9/25/2020).
  Gellman notes that “In the general election in November [2020], the Trump campaign intends to have ballot watchers at every — at every county commission, at every polling — every election tabulation center, and examining every mail-in ballot and saying, we object to this one, the postmark is unclear, we object to this one, the signature doesn’t match, and so on.  ¶   The more they can delete mail-in ballots, the fewer Democratic votes.” So, “if you’re a voter, think about voting in-person on Election Day if you can manage the risk to your health and if you can wear PPE and keep your social distance, because the worst case for chaos is if Trump gets all his votes from the in-person votes, and Biden votes don’t come in until much later.  ¶   That is a recipe for enhanced conflict. Everyone has to think about, what role do I play in this coming election, and how can I plan ahead for unusual events?” (n. pag.)


As Evan Halper’s Los Angeles Times article makes clear, while “many people see the Postal Service as an obvious culprit,” the real challenges for mass mail-in voting have to do with inadequate (and usually underfunded) state electoral systems.
  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has taken on voting rights reform as an issue of public safety, offering several reports on the “organization’s unique blend of science and advocacy to fight for a safe, fair, and secure election this November.” “We’ve released a fact sheet and interactive map that shows how prepared each state is for an election during a pandemic – and the changes election officials need to make. These include such measures as early voting, voting by mail, and automatic voter registration.” (fundraising letter received September 2020)
  UCS recommendations and resources for states and voters are accessible here (“Voting in the Year of COVID-19: How to ensure a free, fair, and safe 2020 election,” issued July 2020) and here (“COVID-19 Underscores the Need for Voting Reform,” issued July 2020).
  “It’s important to remember that the pandemic has struck an electoral system already plagued by entrenched inequities that make it more difficult for members of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other marginalized communities to exercise their right to vote. And these same communities also face the greatest risk from problems — such as air pollution, climate change, and COVID-19 itself — that require government action to address. So electoral reform was already a pressing problem for our nation — and the pandemic has made it even more urgent.” (UCS report, “Voting in the Year of COVID-19,” n. pag.)


Matters of election security are even more pressing post-11/3/2020, given the climate of suspicion & uncertainty enveloping us as the world waits anxiously for the results of a close and contentious election.
  I am most disturbed by the seeming appeal of authoritarian political solutions for the growing chorus of voices, egged on by President Trump, making seditious demands like “Stop the count!” and “Stop the vote!” E.g., “Trump Supporters Demand Michigan Vote Center ‘Stop the Count!’” by Mike Householder and Tim Sullivan of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 11/4/2020).
  Calling for a recount, even if it slows the democratic process, is perfectly legitimate; but demanding a stop (temporary or otherwise) to the government’s formal count of all valid ballots is profoundly undemocratic, and will set our 17th-century republican founders spinning in their graves!
  As alarming as our willful descent into autocracy is the threat to our democratic republic from “multiple security concerns, including foreign or domestic disinformation campaigns that could sow doubt in the process as well as actual digital manipulation of vote tabulation” (seePost-Election Vote Tallying Raises Fresh Security Concerns” by Eric Tucker and Ben Fox of The Associated Press; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 11/4/2020). This piece reviews “some of the potential problems [disinformation spread, website break-ins, manipulation of the vote count] in the days ahead,” and there is plenty here to further raise the nation’s blood pressure!
  Regardless of how the next 3 months unfold, “We the People” need to get our act together and invest in real electoral reforms (like “statistically rigorous ‘risk-limiting audits’”) which will safeguard the vote-tallying process going forward.

NEW  Starting with then-President Trump’s demagoguery concerning a “stolen” presidential election in November 2020, and his faction’s continuing assertion that Joe Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, GOP activism geared at suppressing and/or subverting and/or cancelling the popular vote (when it doesn’t go their way) is profoundly anti-democratic, and at odds with our constitutional guarantee of a republican form of government.
  Rick Hasen has been warning about changes to the electoral franchise which endanger the public interest for years, most recently:
    Q&A, “What If 2020 Was Just a Rehearsal?: American democracy is in the midst of a waking nightmare, says Rick Hasen, and Democrats aren’t taking it seriously enough” by Zack Stanton (posted to POLITICO’s website, 9/26/2021)
    “‘It’s Going to Be an Army’: Tapes Reveal GOP Plan to Contest Elections: Placing operatives as poll workers and building a ‘hotline’ to friendly attorneys are among the strategies to be deployed in Michigan and other swing states” by Heidi Przybyla (posted to POLITICO’s website, 6/1/2022)
    PBS NewsHour segment, “Republican Plans to Use Political Operatives as Poll Workers Alarm Voting Rights Activists” (first aired, 6/1/2022)

The inappropriateness, in a 21st-century president, of Donald Trump’s predilection for anachronistic dynastic power politics is most evident in his failed performance as a “wartime president.” Having declared himself a “wartime president” with wartime powers in 2020, President Trump has struggled to remake warrior culture in his own image. See, for example, “‘Wartime’ Presidents Have One Thing in Common – and It Comes in Many Forms” by retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Robin Umberg and retired U.S. Army Colonel Thomas J. Umberg (guest commentary posted to the CalMatters website, 5/7/2020). And, “AP FACT CHECK: Trump, ‘Wartime’ Pandemic Leader or ‘Backup’?” by Calvin Woodward and Hope Yen of the Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 4/4/2020).
  Unlike Queen Elizabeth I, whose masterful photo ops galvanized an empire, Trump’s pretend monarchy — caricatured by Steve Brodner for the Los Angeles Times (January 2017) in “The Court of Donald I” — is neither inspirational nor heroic.
  I don’t often agree with John Bolton, but he was spot-on in telling Judy Woodruff, “I don’t think you should treat the White House or the U.S. government as kind of a small family business. I’m not on a moral high horse about anti-nepotism statutes. It’s not a question of advancing somebody.  ¶   But I think there’s a difference when your family is deeply involved in this kind of decision-making.  ¶   I will just go back a little bit in history. I don’t think it was a good situation when John Kennedy made his brother attorney general. I think that was a mistake. That’s just how I feel about it.” (PBS NewsHour interview, “Bolton: House Democrats Botched Impeachment with ‘Partisan Process’”, first aired 6/25/2020)
  Many people voted for Donald Trump based on his business background, mistakenly assuming — as did Trump himself — that being the patriarch of a secretive (and most likely corrupt) family business is equivalent to being CEO of a publicly-traded company with global reach such as Exxon (it isn’t), and that this entrepreneurial experience qualifies one to take on and restructure monstrous bureaucracies like the federal government (it doesn’t). Donald Trump’s limited experience heading up a bankrupted family business does not prepare him to pilot a 21st-century ship of state.
  Indeed, refashioning the U.S. presidency into a dysfunctional royal family — akin to how The Donald holds court at Mar-a-Lago, where his impulsive exercise of executive power knows no checks & balances — is no way to run a modern republic.
  As the patriarch of a family business where he gets to write all the rules, Donald Trump needn’t adhere to basic standards of professionalism, ethics, and service.
  But the federal government can’t function effectively without such standards — a lesson we continue to learn in 2020, as Donald Trump lays waste to needed government institutions (excoriated by detractors as “the deep state”) and reconstitutes the U.S. presidency as a monarchy, ceding the power of “the people” to a shadow government run out of the executive branch by courtiers such as Jared Kushner and Rudy Giuliani, and to a Gestapo-like secret police which enforces His will on a recalcitrant populace, as is happening, as of July 2020, in select cities across the U.S. (most notoriously, Portland, Oregon), where the president’s strong-arm tactics and seditious interference in local government will cause more problems than it solves.
  That this spectacle — of an absolute “wartime president” turning on his own citizenry during peacetime — is being conducted like a reality TV show (for ratings, not principles) is even more disturbing: see Judy Woodruff’s interview with Tom Ridge (the first secretary of homeland security during the George W. Bush administration, and former governor of Pennsylvania), “Trump’s Deployment of Federal Forces to U.S. Cities akin to ‘Invasion,’ Ridge Says” (aired 7/23/2020 on the PBS NewsHour). And see alsoWhy Are Mayors Inviting Trump’s Federal Agents into their Cities? The Trump administration’s ‘anti-crime,’ anti-cities agenda goes beyond sending DHS agents to Portland, and some mayors are fine with that” by Alex S. Vitale (posted to The Nation’s website, 7/24/2020), who has a different take on President Trump’s law-and-order posturing, arguing “It is clear why the Trump administration initiated ORP [Operation Relentless Pursuit] and Operation Legend. It wants to use a tough-on-crime agenda to define the problems of urban America as stemming from ‘drug cartels,’ ‘gang bangers,’ and ‘antifa,’ three of Trump’s favorite bogeymen. By doing so, Trump deflects any federal responsibility for the conditions of these cities. The failure of federal policies to provide basic housing, economic development, health care, family supports, or social services are irrelevant when the problem is portrayed as one of immorality and criminality that will respond only to increasingly intensive and invasive policing and mass incarceration.  ¶   The bigger question is why big-city Democratic mayors are embracing Trump’s tough-on-crime reelection strategy....” (A. S. Vitale, n. pag.)
  Unlike most real monarchies — such as that of Elizabeth I, whose identity was inseparable from “my Realm” and the duty it commanded (a true convergence of private and public interests) — the self-aggrandizing Trump dynasty’s only sense of service is to itself. Donald Trump’s priorities, as president and as commander-in-chief, have always been personal (not national), and his unique brand of narcissism has undermined both offices of state. The adverse effects of President Trump’s style of personal rule are playing out even now, during a time of national crisis, as reported in “White House, GOP at Odds over Jobless Aid in Virus Bill” by Lisa Mascaro of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 7/24/2020).
  As “the nation’s infections topped 4 million, the number of deaths rose this week by several thousands, to nearly 145,000, and the $600 unemployment benefit boost for millions of out-of-work Americans was put on track to expire” the next day, negotiations over the next COVID-19 rescue bill were stalled, first, by President Trump’s push for inclusion of a payroll tax break (which even Senate Republicans rejected because it “would pull revenue away from the tax funds Social Security and Medicare” and does little to help out-of-work Americans), and second, by President Trump’s sudden shift in priorities — “rethinking the jobless benefit and Trump’s preference for a new building to replace the FBI’s aging J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, across the street from the newer Trump hotel.” (L. Mascaro, n. pag.)
  On 7/24/2020, “The U.S. registered its 18th straight week of new jobless claims topping 1 million, with an unemployment rate at 11 percent, higher than during last decade’s Great Recession. A new AP-NORC poll said half of Americans laid off now believe their job will not return.” (L. Mascaro, n. pag.) Yet our wartime president chose to prioritize adding money to build a new FBI headquarters near one of his properties over jobless aid and the crafting of “a strong, targeted piece of legislation aimed directly at the challenges we face right now.” (L. Mascaro, n. pag.)
  A world-class narcissist, Donald Trump has no sense of public service (as president, or as commander-in-chief), and at his campaign event on 6/20/2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, President Trump’s egocentric Weltanschauung was on full display as “He called the crowd ‘warriors’ for defying the ‘fake news’ to attend his rally, brushing off concerns that gathering thousands of people could help spread the coronavirus, which [at that point, had] already killed 120,000 Americans.” Indeed, President Trump complained “that extensive testing was making the pandemic look worse.  ¶   ‘I said to my people, “Slow the testing down, please,”’ he said, in what appeared to be a striking admission that he’s prioritized politics over accurately tracking the spread of the virus. A White House official said later the president ‘was clearly speaking in jest.’” (“Trump’s Return to Stump Underwhelms at Tulsa Rally: Big Crowds Fail to Materialize Amid Virus Concerns” by Chris Megerian and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times, 6/21/2020, pp. A1 and A8)
  When asked later about the mixed messaging, the president felt no need to apologize for taking such a self-centered approach to public health policy, telling reporters he had been dead serious: “I don’t kid.” (President Donald Trump, qtd. in “More Americans Disapprove of Trump Now Than at Any Other Time in his Presidency” by Laura Santhanam; posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 6/26/2020, n. pag.)
  Given his superficial grasp of warrior culture, it’s small wonder President Trump’s own attempts at such symbolic display as Rubens created for Marie de Médicis have fallen flat.
  His efforts at being identified with the pomp & circumstance of military parades (and what George W. Bush memorably called the “shock and awe” of U.S. military might) have drawn mostly backlash and scorn.
  NEW  (As of June 2022, we’re still dealing with the fallout of former President Trump’s attempts to rebrand the presidency in his own image, in this case, substituting his own red, white and blue livery for the iconic “baby blue” & white color scheme used for decades on the primary presidential aircraft, Air Force One. SeeHot Mess: There’s a Problem with Trump’s Air Force One Paint Job / The darker paint ‘might contribute to temperatures exceeding the current qualification limits,’ the Air Force says” by Lee Hudson and Lara Seligman [posted to POLITICO website, 6/8/2022]; along with their follow-on reporting, “Biden Scraps Trump’s Air Force One Paint Scheme over Cost / A new study shows the darker color could cause heating problems on some of the airplane’s components” [posted to POLITICO website, 6/10/2022].)
  For example, his unseemly parade on 6/1/2020 across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC — walking with his entourage from the White House’s Rose Garden to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he awkwardly posed with a raised bible in front of a vandalized and boarded-up parish house, after those exercising their constitutional right to protest in the park were violently cleared from his path by police and federal officers — backfired badly. Far from portraying Trump as an heroic strongman — defender of the faith, securing justice & peace for the commonwealth (cf. Rubens’s magnificent representation of the French Queen Mother subduing the lions of state) — the vulgar photo op painted him as cowardly and out-of-touch.
  From the event’s setup speech in the Rose Garden, punctuated by the sounds of tear gas canisters & projectiles followed by protestor screams, the staging was all wrong. (For details, see the news account by Time magazine’s Brian Bennett, “President Trump’s Big Moment in Front of a Church Shows He Has Missed the Point of the Protests,” posted to Time’s website on 6/2/2020; reference courtesy “John B, Des Moines,” in a comment posted on the AP news story, “Democratic Governors Reject Trump’s Call to Send in Military”.)
  On this particular occasion, actual events triumphed over President Trump’s alternate reality, and the Black Lives Matter protestors he had hoped to upstage with his law-and-order pageantry continued to dominate the news feeds.
  Moreover, the self-serving photo op offended many men & women of faith and valor, some of whom felt compelled to speak up for public ideals & institutions which the president had politicized and diminished in order to sate his vanity.
  See, for example, the PBS NewsHour interview, “Bishop Budde on Trump’s ‘Inflammatory’ Rhetoric and How He Can Help the Nation Heal” (first aired 6/2/2020).
  Also, the PBS NewsHour interview, “How Gen. Mark Milley Became a Political ‘Prop’ during Trump Photo Op” (first aired 6/11/2020).
  Also, the website for “the largest force of progressive veterans, service members and civilian allies in America,” The group has “taken Trump’s administration to court for outsourcing veterans policy to his Mar-a-Lago golfing buddies” and is intent on defeating Donald Trump in November 2020. “It’s not the unconscionable deployment of troops to fight a phony border ‘invasion’ or robbing the military to pay for an ill-conceived wall. It isn’t even his disgraceful threat to use our men and women in uniform against American citizens exercising their legal right to protest.  ¶   The reason this Army veteran wants Donald Trump defeated is to restore honor to my country.” (July 2020 fundraising letter for, written by Major Gen. (Ret.) Paul Eaton, Former Operation Iraqi Freedom Commander)
  And, see the PBS NewsHour interview with retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, “‘Armed Forces Exist to Protect’ U.S., Not Police Communities, Retired General Says” (first aired 6/4/2020).
  In his interview with Nick Schifrin, General Ham reminds us that “in our nation, we have a long tradition, going back to the founding of the nation, concern even expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and certainly in the Constitution, a concern about the employment of federal active-duty armed forces within the boundaries of the United States for domestic security purposes.  ¶   And so I think that’s what we’re seeing play out, is that that long-held tradition of concern about using the military inside the U.S. The U.S. armed forces exist to protect the nation. They’re not well-suited for policing communities.” (n. pag.)
  Later in the interview, General Ham emphasizes that U.S. civilian and military leaders “work hard to keep from politicizing the military [...] to make sure that nothing interferes in that bond of trust that must exist between the nation and its armed forces.” (n. pag.)
  As General Ham observed, this bond of trust has always been “fragile,” especially given our republic’s 17th-century history of “urban garrison government and agricultural military plantation” (Stephen Saunders Webb, “Army and Empire: English Garrison Government in Britian and America, 1569 to 1763,” 14), pitting a strong “military-imperial executive” against a “civilian-localist legislature” (a centuries-old struggle which contributed both to the English civil wars and the Anglo-American revolution).
  The proper role of the military (and provincial militias) in a civil society was, from the founding of Anglo-America, at the center of our political debate. As of 2020, few of us (left, right, and center) wish to live in a police state, and the majority of us fear the heavy hand (tyranny) of the federal government. President Trump’s reckless talk about strong-arming the citizenry (“dominate the streets”), by sicking his standing army on the people, runs counter to everything that a modern, professional military represents.
  And it is demagoguery unworthy of a president or a constitutional monarch, both of whom ultimately lead a modern nation-state, not by force, but with the consent of the governed.
  As a “wartime president” with extraordinary powers, Donald Trump has squandered his strategic advantage, redirecting his energies at manufactured threats (politically-correct “leftist” tyrants defacing offensive public statues, many of which will be removed from their current pedestals eventually anyway, and non-existent domestic terorist organizations such as “antifa,” which is a dispersed political movement, not a unified organization) instead of at the real problems (a novel coronavirus pandemic, a global economy in tatters) that threaten “the General Welfare” he has sworn to promote.
  It is much easier to see himself as leading the nation in a righteous war against PC tyrants, in defense of what he believes to be Anglo-America’s true legacy of liberty & justice, than it is to admit defeat — brought down by a microscopic virus, complicated global supply chains (for PPE, testing, vaccines, etc.), and deep-state logistics that his courtier administration hasn’t a clue how to manage. (The ill effects of Trump administration corruption & incompetence & “oversight” are becoming clear. Scil.House Panel Warns of Fraud, Abuse in Business Aid Program” by Marcy Gordon of The Associated Press [posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/1/2020], including the Disqus comments section where people have posted trickle-down tales of program abuses and ineffectiveness at the local level, where struggling small businesses are unable to get aid. And see William Brangham’s interview with ProPublica reporter J. David McSwane, whose investigations of the VA Hospital system reveal its failure “to provide adequate protection for its own medical staff” during the COVID-19 pandemic because of an “antiquated” procurement system, plagued by “incompetence and greed, poor planning and judgment failures,” despite the Trump administration’s “very substantive reorganization of the VA’s leadership,” which hasn’t delivered on the promised fixes: “Reports Highlight Failures of the VA’s Health System during the Pandemic” [first aired on the PBS NewsHour, 1/1/2021]. This is a particularly shameful legacy, given that the very first hospital in English America was a military hospital, established in 1611 at the “new town” of Henrico, in the colony of Virginia, by the soldier and acting governor, Sir Thomas Dale [d. 1619], in keeping with martial law [first instituted in Virginia in May 1610] and Dale’s own experience of military codes, as honed in the Netherlands under the earl of Leicester. Dale was an able administrator, and the first Anglo-American hospital was more efficiently run in the 1600s than we appear able to manage today.)
  Rather than take responsibility, rise to the occasion, and fight on regardless, our wartime president has fled the field: e.g., “Trump Talks Less about Virus, States Look Inward for Answers” by Aamer Madhani of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 7/18/2020). And again, at the end of his term, after losing the 2020 presidential election: “State Officials Press White House to Do More as Coronavirus Task Force Quietly Issues Dire Warnings” by Meredith Lee (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 12/24/2020). (The upside to having our “wartime president” MIA when it comes to battling the pandemic — which President Trump believes we have all but conquered, speculating in early December 2020 that “Over the next few months, the numbers should skyrocket downward.” — is that his absence from the theater “‘may actually be helping us right now,’ said Doug Gieryn, a county health director in northeast Wisconsin, which experienced the country’s fastest growing coronavirus outbreak this fall. ‘Less information is better than misinformation,’ Gieryn said” [qtd. in M. Lee, n. pag.].)
  The predictable result of a wartime president who is MIA: price-gouging and chaotic supply chains with little to no accountability as to “how taxpayer money was being spent,” as reported by David Lieb and Camille Fasset of The Associated Press in “Tight Supplies for Virus Gear Cost US States Billions” (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 12/19/2020). Their investigation reveals that “the states’ burst of spending wasn’t a boon for everyone. Some businesses that tried to supply protective equipment lost millions of dollars when states canceled orders that failed to meet aggressive delivery deadlines or strict product specifications. Businesses selling PPE faced a treacherous market, with backlogs at foreign manufacturers, shipping delays and multiple intermediaries.  ¶   All of that led to a spike in prices paid by the states, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.” (D. Lieb & C. Fasset, n. pag.)
  This was an historic reconceptualization of government’s mission. In the past, the central government would have intervened to restore order & stability in the affected markets (e.g., I can trace government control of prices and trade practices, promoting “the generall good of the colony,” to 1619 in Anglo-America, with protectionist legislation against “ingrossing & forestalling” basic necessities first passed in 1629).
  But the Trump administration reneged on this responsibility and opportunistically contributed to the chaos instead. Seemingly indifferent to human suffering, President Trump mismanaged our limited health-care resources, and chose to play politics with a public health crisis, as reported in “House Panel Alleges Trump Officials Attacked CDC Reports about Coronavirus Spread” by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 12/21/2020). For a fascinating look at Trump administration “meddling” in the CDC (“Once seen as an apolitical bulwark”), see ProPublica’s report, “Inside the Fall of the CDC” by James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella, and Kirsten Berg (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 10/16/2020).
  Even in his final days in office, Donald Trump continues to deconstruct the president’s historical “role in the legislative process,” recasting himself “primarily as a disrupter whose erratic directives to lawmakers, most often delivered in tweets, frequently upend the already fraught policy-making process on Capitol Hill,” according to Eli Stokols and Sarah D. Wire in their article, “Lack of Deal-Making Is Trump’s Legacy: Struggling COVID aid talks show again that he doesn’t live up to hype on negotiations” (Los Angeles Times, 12/20/2020, p. A4). And true to form, at the last minute, “Trump Criticizes COVID-19 Relief Bill, Suggests He May Not Sign,” as reported by Kevin Freking and Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 12/22/2020).
  In his op-ed, “America Isn’t Finished Paying for Trump’s Incompetence: Vaccine rollout confusion and the Russian cyberattack are reminders that the president isn’t doing his job” (posted to the Bloomberg Opinion website, 12/20/2020), Timothy L. O’Brien argues that “one reason we got vaccines so quickly is that Operation Warp Speed, the federal body that helped fund and orchestrate vaccine development, successfully carried out the mission the Trump administration gave it. Warp Speed’s other responsibility, however, is to help distribute the vaccine nationally, with logistical help from the military. And there’s reason to suspect that the government is mismanaging distribution.”
  For more on the “planning errors” and “miscommunication” that “disrupted vaccination plans and stirred consternation in at least 14 states,” see the New York Times piece, “The Head of Operation Warp Speed Apologizes for Shortfalls in Vaccine Deliveries to at least 14 States” by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Noah Weiland and Sharon LaFraniere (posted to the NYT website, 12/19/2020). It is worth pointing out, as did Anthony Fauci in his 12/21/2020 interview with the PBS NewsHour, that problems with such a complicated logistics effort are to be expected: “Whenever you have the rollout of a big program like this, you’re going to get some glitches. I don’t know exactly the details of what happened in the states that were expecting more doses and did not get it.  ¶   But that’s one of the things that happens when you’re rolling out a brand-new program like this. I would expect that, as we get a few more weeks into the process, that you’re going to see it running much more smoothly. That happens all the time. People get used to it, they get into a groove, and the distribution starts to go much more smoothly than it already has.” (Anthony Fauci to Judy Woodruff, n. pag.) President Trump would have done well to explain this to the U.S. public, and to plan for the inevitable problems, but with only a superficial grasp of the issues involved, he chose instead to mislead us with more happy talk about how perfectly everything would unfold, dismissing concerns to the contrary as “fake news.”
  Of course, not every example of COVID-19 vaccine mismanagement is due to Trump administration miscommunications and/or ineptitude: for example, cf.3 Lessons Learned from Issues with Stanford’s Vaccine Distribution Algorithm” by Casey Ross and Erin Brodwin, for STAT News (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 12/22/2020).
  While President Trump takes credit for the successes of Operation Warp Speed, and Army Gen. Gustave Perna takes the blame for its failures, it is ultimately President Trump who bears responsibility for the tone-deaf branding of “Operation Warp Speed” — a major misstep for an otherwise savvy marketing man, who didn’t anticipate the public health consequences of emphasizing speed over safety. On this point, see the op-ed “Don’t Dismiss All Vaccine Skeptics as Anti-Science” by Kira Ganga Kieffer (Los Angeles Times, 12/20/2020, p. A16), who recommends that the incoming Biden administration “rename Operation Warp Speed” “to reduce anxiety” and ensure widespread vaccine adoption in 2021.
  Given that our wartime president long ago disengaged and fled the field, formulating a strategic, nationally-coordinated response fell to deep-state stalwarts and public servants like Dr. Thomas Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 to 2017, and current president of the global health initiative, Resolve to Save Lives. Frieden argues that “the country desperately needs improved data collection to understand how the virus is spreading — and to contain it. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss critical metrics and how to obtain and learn from them” in the PBS NewsHour segment, “U.S. Must Collect this Data in Order to Contain Pandemic, Former CDC Director Says” (first aired 7/22/2020).
  Another model for strategic planning, with lessons for all of us about “the nearsightedness of [typical] political decision-making,” is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s prescient “Health Surge Capacity Initiative to stockpile medicines and medical gear for use in outbreaks of infectious disease,” implemented in 2006 when Schwarzenegger was governor of California. “[C]oncerned by the images he was seeing on TV” of “tremendous suffering” when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, then-Gov. Schwarzenegger determined to take prudent preparatory action in California to ensure “the people’s safety,” making “a critical investment” of more than $200 million in “medical weapons to deploy in the case of large-scale emergencies and natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires and pandemics.”
  Gov. Schwarzenegger’s efficient disaster preparedness efforts were later dismantled (“Then-Assemblyman Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel, suggested the state should sell its unneeded medical equipment on eBay.”) after “the 2008 recession clobbered the state budget” and “[t]he funding to maintain the hospitals and the stockpile of medical supplies was zeroed out in 2011.” The full story is told here: “State Built Stockpile for Crisis, Then Dispersed It: $200-million program was scrapped amid deficit” by Lance Williams, Will Evans and Will Carless (Los Angeles Times, 3/29/2020, pp. A1 and A9). I should point out that Gov. Schwarzenegger’s exemplary commitment to emergency preparedness and public health extended to his efforts, starting in 2007, to create a universal healthcare program for the state. As Michael Hiltzik documents in “State’s Obamacare Embrace Yields Dividends” (Los Angeles Times, 3/15/2020, pp. C1 and C7), “California’s nation-leading embrace of the Affordable Care Act began with a Republican governor.”
  And it will be destroyed by a reckless Republican “wartime president” (aided by the Republican-controlled Senate) if Donald Trump remains in power.


NEW  [ UPDATE ]  For a fresh, insider’s perspective on the shortcomings of Operation Warp Speed, see POLITICO’s interview with OWS’s chief operating officer, retired Army general Gus Perna: “‘Where Was the Strategy for Getting People Ready to Start Taking the Vaccine?’: The vaccine arrived in record time, but the government dropped the ball on educating the public” (posted to POLITICO’s website, 5/12/2022).


NEW  Without question, the iconic postmodern performance of a “wartime president” is being given right now (first half of 2022) by Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose resilience, personal courage, sense of duty & service, love of country, and communications savvy has galvanized a pandemic-weary world desperate for heroes.
  As someone who avoids social media, I leave it to others more qualified than I to analyze Zelenskyy’s iconic rise as a “wartime leader”: e.g., “How Ukraine Won The #LikeWar: By effectively employing 10 essential messaging themes, Ukraine beat Russia in shaping the early narrative of the conflict, helping to keep themselves in the real-world fight” by P. W. Singer (posted to POLITICO’s website, 3/12/2022).
  And yet another celebrity has stepped into a leadership role in the information wars raging online, on view in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Russian-subtitled video appeal to the people of Russia, posted to his Twitter account on 3/18/2022: “I love the Russian people. That is why I have to tell you the truth. Please watch and share.”
  Schwarzenegger’s powerful rhetoric (which I learned about at POLITICO) is an effective counter-offensive to Russian demagoguery concerning President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Whether Schwarzenegger’s truth-telling can sway Russian public opinion remains to be seen.
  For those able and willing “to help Ukrainians in their fight for peace and freedom,” click/tap here to learn more.
  To donate directly to the Ukrainian war effort, click/tap here.
  Having recently lost my legal protections against predatory neighbors who don’t respect the sovereignty of others, I understand — on a visceral level — the need to fight, not placate, the bullies among us.

For a primer on modern incitement law (“Can speech on a social media site, or a presidential platform, incite violence?”), see the op-ed by Danielle Allen and Richard Ashby Wilson, “The Rules of Incitement Should Apply To — and Be Enforced On — Social Media” (posted to The Washington Post website, 8/8/2019).
  The authors believe that “obscurity hinders fair and consistent application” of the current law of incitement (as determined by the 1969 Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio), and they argue that “updating the law of incitement and enforcing it on social media platforms will also clarify the rules of speech governing the presidential platform,” for which legal jeopardy is similarly unclear.
  “The Brandenburg test was developed in a pre-Internet era and requires updating. Mainstream social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have hate-speech guidelines that allow them to remove incendiary content. Like private clubs, they set their own terms of service and regulate speech more assiduously than government. For instance, mainstream social media regularly remove content that denigrates racial, religious or immigrant groups, or calls for harm against them.  ¶   Fringe platforms such as 4chan and 8chan set no such standards, and they thrive on racist, anti-immigrant and inciting language. They allow far-right communities of hate to coalesce and incite their members to commit mass shootings. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Internet providers and social media sites bear no liability for content that third parties post on their platforms. The time has come to challenge this again in court and to pursue civil liability for those platforms that are grossly negligent in regulating the content on their sites.” (D. Allen and R. A. Wilson, n. pag.)
  Of note, “We could easily tighten up the current law of incitement without undermining free-speech protections.” (D. Allen and R. A. Wilson, n. pag.)

Given our evolving cultural anxieties over “fake news” in a post-First Amendment digital age — when anyone with an Internet connection can easily “deceive people with false reports” — it is to be expected that academic researchers would begin studying the signified concept, in hopes of better understanding what it is and how it propagates.
  Axel Gelfert’s article, “Fake News: A Definition,” published in the academic journal, Informal Logic: Reasoning and Argumentation in Theory and Practice, stresses the importance of distinguishing fake news from related, but distinct, types of public disinformation, false or misleading claims, and propaganda. “Fake news, I argue, is best defined as the deliberate presentation of (typically) false or misleading claims as news, where the claims are misleading by design.” (A. Gelfert, 85–6)
  Noting that “Fake news is not itself a new phenomenon,” Gelfert emphasizes the novel effects of it “when combined with online social media that enable the targeted, audience-specific manipulation of cognitive biases and heuristics”: this “forms a potent — and, as the events of 2016 show, politically explosive — mix.... [O]nline social media, which, as a Psychology Today article puts it, work on cognitive biases ‘like steroids’ ... has opened up new systemic ways of presenting consumers with news-like claims that are misleading by design. As a result, given the increasing permeability between online and offline news sources, and with traditional news media often reporting on fake news in order to debunk it (a worthy goal that is rendered ineffective by further cognitive biases such as source confusion, belief perseverance, and the backfire effect), we find ourselves increasingly confronted with publicly disseminated disinformation that masquerades as news, yet whose main purpose it is to feed off our cognitive biases in order to ensure its own continued production and reproduction.” (A. Gelfert, 113)

“Amid the many questions swirling around the New Zealand mosque shootings [on 3/15/2019] is whether Facebook and other digital platforms acted swiftly enough to stop video footage of the attacks from circulating. These social media giants are already facing scrutiny for enabling users to perpetuate false stories and hate speech. Judy Woodruff talks to The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin for more.” in the PBS NewsHour segment, “How Social Media Platforms Reacted to Viral Video of New Zealand Shootings” (first aired 3/18/2019).
  “[JUDY WOODRUFF:] Well — and, of course, all this raises the question, do these social media platforms, do they see their responsibility as stopping this kind of material from being spread?
  “[ELIZABETH DWOSKIN:] They would say yes. But the reality is, is that that’s where they fail.  ¶   They also will tell you that it’ll never not be posted, because they have a system where there’s not prior review. Anyone can post, and it only gets reviewed later, if it gets reviewed. And as long as you have that system, you’re going to accept that some of the stuff goes up and gets spread.  ¶   And then let’s add to — let’s add to this their responsibility. It’s not just like the content goes up and anyone sees it. YouTube and Facebook, they have highly personalized algorithms, where the content is actually designed to be turbocharged when people click on it. They start recommending it.  ¶   So they’re making a lot of editorial, curatorial actions that actually promote content to people who didn’t even ask for it. And so they have a huge role. I talked today to a former director at YouTube who said that he himself was stunned by the level of irresponsibility of those design choices.” (n. pag.)
  Several commentators on this piece objected to any futher attempts at censoring such videos on the Web; e.g., see the comment posted by “Bob”: “I watched the video and ironically it’s as if the far right terrorist took a page out of ISIS who posted thousands of videos pridefully showing their deeds... before being crushed by those they victimized the most (Iraqi’s, Kurds, Syrians). Same tactics, same mindset, same outcome.  ¶   Why the scramble to remove this particular video when there are countless other videos that are equal to or far worse that haven’t been removed? YouTube has attempted to sanitize its videos with the usual sanitized videos (CNN, Fox, AP, the usual) and it is far more tame than it was just a few years ago, but to what end? I have found that the UK and US over-sanitize their news to begin with, keeping the viewer distanced from what is really going on in the world. These videos smash a hole in conspiracy theorists and those who deny such things occur.  ¶   I see no reason why someone who chooses to see these videos should be prevented from viewing them. If it’s marked ‘explicit’ then it should be up to the viewer to decide to click on the video, fair warning. In any case, this video is still out there.” (n. pag.)
  For more on the deadliest mass shootings in modern New Zealand history — which were live-streamed on Facebook — see the Wikipedia page on Christchurch Mosque Shootings.


One of social media’s more successful attempts at controlling the Internet’s rapid-fire spread of disinformation and bias is analyzed in the PBS NewsHour segment, “Why Kicking Alex Jones Off Social Media Is Not Legally Censorship” (first aired 8/8/2018).
  SUMMARY: “iTunes, Facebook, Spotify and YouTube have all removed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ audio and video content from their platforms, saying he violated their hate-speech policies. P. J. Tobia takes a closer look at his media operation, and William Brangham examines the pushback and legal questions with Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri School of Law.”
  In the (pre-First Amendment) 17th century — when “the identification of untruth with malicious criminal defamation was a forward-looking legal practice” pioneered by the American Puritans (R. B. Morris, “Massachusetts and the Common Law: The Declaration of 1646,” 144) — Jones would have been prosecuted by state government as a publisher of “false news,” and the fines alone (let alone the threat of corporal punishment) would have probably caused him to cease & desist his practice of tabloid journalism.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) continues to oppose most 21st-century government mandates responding to the “fake news” phenomenon.
  In the position paper, “EFF to the Inter-American System: If You Want to Tackle ‘Fake News,’ Consider Free Expression First” (posted 2/28/2019), Veridiana Alimonti notes that “Disinformation flows are not a new issue, neither is the use of ‘fake news’ as a label to attack all criticism as baseless propaganda. The lack of a set definition for this term magnifies the problem, rendering its use susceptible to multiple and inconsistent meanings. Time and again legitimate concerns about misinformation and manipulation were misconstrued or distorted to entrench the power of established voices and stifle dissent. To combat these pitfalls, EFF’s submission presented recommendations — and stressed that the human rights standards on which the Inter-American System builds its work, already provide substantial guidelines and methods to address disinformation without undermining free expression and other fundamental rights.  ¶   The Americas’ human rights standards — which include the American Convention on Human Rights — declare that restrictions to free expression must be (1) clearly and precisely defined by law, (2) serve compelling objectives authorized by the American Convention, and (3) be necessary and appropriate in a democratic society to accomplish the objectives pursued as well as strictly proportionate to the intended objective. New prohibitions on the online dissemination of information based on vague ideas, such as ‘false news,’ for example, fail to comply with this three-part test. Restrictions on free speech that vaguely claim to protect the ‘public order’ also fall short of meeting these requirements.” (V. Alimonti, n. pag.)
  In another position paper, “Victory! Dangerous Elements Removed from California’s Bot-Labeling Bill" (posted 10/5/2018), Jamie Williams and Jeremy Gillula describe how California Senate Bill 1001 — “a new law requiring all ‘bots’ used for purposes of influencing a commercial transaction or a vote in an election to be labeled” — “originally included a provision that would have been abused as a censorship tool, and would have threatened online anonymity and resulted in the takedown of lawful human speech.” (J. Williams and J. Gillula, n. pag.)
  Also seeEFF to Court: Remedy for Bad Content Moderation Isn’t to Give Government More Power to Control Speech” by David Greene (posted 11/26/2018), which documents EFF’s ongoing struggle for a voluntary, not government-mandated, “human rights framing for removing or downgrading content and accounts” from social-media sites: “We’ve taken Internet service companies and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to task for bad content moderation practices that remove speech and silence voices that deserve to be heard. We’ve catalogued their awful decisions. We’ve written about their ambiguous policies, inconsistent enforcement, and failure to appreciate the human rights implications of their actions. We’re part of an effort to devise a human rights framing for removing or downgrading content and accounts from their sites, and are urging all platforms to adopt them as part of their voluntary internal governance. Just last week, we joined more than 80 international human rights groups in demanding that Facebook clearly explain how much content it removes, both rightly and wrongly, and provide all users with a fair and timely method to appeal removals and get their content back up.  ¶   These efforts have thus far been directed at urging the platforms to adopt voluntary practices rather than calling for them to be imposed by governments through law. Given the long history of governments using their power to regulate speech to promote their own propaganda, manipulate the public discourse, and censor disfavored speech, we are very reluctant to hand the U.S. government a role in controlling the speech that appears on the Internet via private platforms. This is already a problem in other countries.” (D. Greene, n. pag.)
  And EFF’s alternative approach to reform has generated some real wins: “Facebook Responds to Global Coalition’s Demand That Users Get a Say in Content Removal Decisions” by Karen Gullo and Jillian C. York (posted 12/20/2018).
  Click/tap here (direct link to PDF file) to read the text of EFF’s recommended Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation — a set of minimum content moderation standards with a human rights framing created by EFF and its partners.

For modern political communities long accustomed to self-government (which our 17th-century founders were not), an alternate community-based model of quality control — for promoting a popular culture of truth, and restricting the spread of fake news — is being pioneered at Wikipedia, with its “large, diverse editor base” of amateurs, which “makes it very difficult for any person or group to censor and impose bias” over time.

Another alternative proposal for building digital democracy from the grassroots: “The Rise of a Cooperatively Owned Internet: Platform cooperativism gets a boost” by Nathan Schneider (The Nation, vol. 303, no. 18, 31 Oct. 2016, p. 4).
  “Platform cooperatives weren’t something one could even call for until December 2014, when New School professor Trebor Scholz posted an online essay about ‘platform cooperativism,’ putting the term on the map. A year later, he and I organized a packed conference on the subject in New York City. We’re about to publish Ours to Hack and to Own [OR Books, 2017], a collective manifesto with contributions from more than 60 authors that Scholz and I edited. The authors include leading tech critics like Yochai Benkler, Douglas Rushkoff, and Astra Taylor, as well as entrepreneurs, labor organizers, workers, and others. The theory and practice of platform cooperativism are spreading.” (N. Schneider, 4)

As for Facebook’s latest solution to the growing problems of a digital agon shaped by data-driven demagoguery: see “Mark Zuckerberg Says He’ll Reorient Facebook toward Privacy and Encryption,” by Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Washington Post (posted to the Los Angeles Times website, 3/6/2019).
  Of note, “Zuckerberg described the changes using the metaphor of transforming Facebook from a town square into a living room. ‘As I think about the future of the internet,’ he wrote, ‘I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.’” (E. Dwoskin, n. pag.)
  “The moves — which Zuckerberg, in a blog post, outlined in broad strokes rather than as a set of specific product changes — would shift the company’s focus from a social network in which people widely broadcast information to one in which people communicate with smaller groups, with their content disappearing after a short period of time, Zuckerberg said. Facebook’s core social network is structured around public conversation, but it also owns private messaging services WhatsApp and Messenger, which are closed networks. Instagram, Facebook’s photo-sharing platform, has also seen huge growth thanks to ephemeral messaging.” (E. Dwoskin, n. pag.)
  I fail to see how any of this addresses the real issues with Facebook’s profitable practice of building detailed psychographic profiles of users, which can be sold to unidentified parties, as well as used by Facebook and advertisers to “target” us as website visitors, consumers, citizens, and voters.
  I’m also not sure that social media denizens are going to be all that eager to vacate the town square and keep to their living rooms! I expect liberated grandmothers the world over have come to enjoy digital life beyond the domestic sphere, encountering the unknown, and communicating with hundreds of voices beyond their immediate circle of family and friends.
  Fortunately, Zuckerberg’s vision of “the future of the internet” — a more intimate digital public sphere, colonized by private capital — is not our only option.


Elizabeth Dwoskin updates her reporting on Facebook’s planned reorientation in a PBS NewsHour interview: “With Proposed Changes, Is Facebook Sincere about Prioritizing Privacy?” (first aired 5/1/2019).
  SUMMARY: “While Facebook remains one of the world’s largest companies, it has lost some public trust in recent years, due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 election and privacy issues. Now, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is embarking upon a major shift to the platform’s basic design and approach. Jeffrey Brown talks to The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin.”
  I found the following exchange noteworthy:
  “[JEFFREY BROWN:] And what about the business model? What are they saying about how they will make money with this new approach?
  “[ELIZABETH DWOSKIN:] So, in my interview with Zuckerberg, I asked him about that very directly. And he said, you know, I’m not sure how we’re going to profit off this transition to messaging, but I’m confident we will be fine.  ¶   So I’m looking at that, thinking they’re going to find a way to collect data about you, even though they can’t read the messages. And potentially that will come from the fact that they’re making all their services interoperable.  ¶   So you think of Facebook as a social network, but Facebook is a conglomerate of WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook Messenger. And now they’re going to unify them. You can send a message to WhatsApp, someone on WhatsApp, through Facebook.  ¶   And so that will allow them to track even more behavior than before and will push people to engage even more than before. And, you know, their real obsession, Zuckerberg said, you know, people — people think, we’re all about data. He said, what we’re really all about is attention, which I was very surprised to hear.” (n. pag.)
  And again:
  “[ELIZABETH DWOSKIN:] I think Mark Zuckerberg has always been a person who cared more about human behavior and growth than actual money.  ¶   And we remember he wanted to connect the world and make Facebook free, when people didn’t want Facebook to be free. So I think he’s confident that, if we win in the attention game, the dollars will follow. And, so far, Wall Street rewards that.  ¶   In terms of the sincerity around privacy, just remember, in order to get people’s attention, if Mark says that’s the most important thing, you need to know things about them, you need to collect data.  ¶   And it’s deeply in that company’s DNA to profile your behavior, to understand behavior, to create psychological learning tactics to keep your attention there. And I don’t see that going away.” (n. pag.)

It is not news to designers (in any field, including tech) that brands operate as emotional triggers.
  But a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science suggesting that we “limit the presentations” of brands and other graphic symbols (by which we sort ourselves into tribes) online in order “to eliminate echo chambers and partisan rancor on social media” is news worth debating.
  As reported by Nsikan Akpan in “How Seeing a Political Logo Can Impair Your Understanding of Facts” (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 9/3/2018):
  “Merely seeing these political and social labels can cause you to reject facts that you would otherwise support,” according to researchers.
  “There’s a name for the behavioral pattern observed among participants who saw the logos — priming — and it is common among political and social discourse. Research shows that priming with small partisan cues, whether they involve politics, race or economics, can sway the opinions of people. These knee-jerk decisions happen even if you’re encountering an issue for the first time or have little time to react.  ¶   ‘When people are reminded of their partisan identity — when that is brought to the front of their minds – they think as partisans first and as “thoughtful people” second,’ Dannagal Young, a communications psychologist at the University of Delaware, told the PBS NewsHour via email.  ¶   Young said this happens because logos prompt our minds to change how they process our goals. When reminded of our partisan identity, we promote ideas that our consistent with our attitudes and social beliefs in a bid to seem like good members of the group — in this case, Democrat or Republican.  ¶   Like teenagers at a digital school lunch table, we emphasize our most extreme opinions and place less weight on facts. When partisan cues are stripped away, people made considerations based on objective accuracy, rather than choosing goals by beliefs or peer pressure.  ¶   Young said any online social network — including the ones in the study — are conceptually distinct from the way humans exist in the world, but Centola’s experiments offer insights into how partisan cues can affect people’s attitudes and opinions in digital spaces.  ¶   The study also offers clues for journalists reporting on partisan issues as well as for the designers of social networks like Facebook, which has pledged to reduce the damage caused by the spread of political news and propaganda on its platform.  ¶   ‘The biggest takeaway for me is that individuals and journalists seeking to overcome partisan biases need to drop the “Republicans say this and Democrats say that” language from their discussion of policy,’ Young said. ‘These findings encourage journalists to cover policy in ways that are more about the substance of the issues rather than in terms of the personalized, dramatized political fights.’” (Nsikan Akpan, n. pag.)

And a technological means for reducing the amount of data-driven demagoguery in our lives: “The Flip Phone Is Back. Have people had enough of constant connection?” by Elizabeth Flock (posted to the PBS NewsHour website, 4/26/2019).
  “Smartphones have been around for more than a decade, but Adrian Ward, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who has authored several studies on the cognitive consequences of smartphones, said he believes there has been a lag period for people to notice the negative effects.  ¶   ‘It takes people time to realize that they’re personally getting “more” than they expected from technology — not just productivity tools and instant access to cat videos, but also an attentional black hole,’ he wrote in an email. That, he added, coupled with rising concern at a societal level, and tech companies who have gotten even better at capturing consumers’ attention, may have led to a rising resistance to smartphones and renewed interest in simpler phones.” (E. Flock, n. pag.)
  However, the old cheap flip phone has mostly been replaced by “an entire new generation of flip phones that are more like fancy smartphones in disguise.” (n. pag.) For example, Nokia’s retro “banana phone,” “not only allows users to play the retro video game Snake, but also check their Facebook and Twitter, take beautiful photos, and create a mobile hotspot.” “These [new flip] phones aren’t solving the problems of smartphone use, but Kostadin Kushlev, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University who has studied the subject for years, said he didn’t believe companies should be expected to.” (E. Flock, n. pag.)

For better or worse, it is not just the demagogue’s art which is being radically transformed by machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting.
  As reported by the PBS NewsHour, Big Data is now driving content creation in industries such as perfumery, streaming services (e.g., Netflix), and pornography: “How Big Data Is Transforming Creative Commerce” (first aired 10/17/2019).
  SUMMARY: “Big data is disrupting nearly every aspect of modern life. Artificial intelligence, which involves machines learning, analyzing and acting upon enormous sets of data, is transforming industries and eliminating certain jobs. But that data can also be used to appeal more directly to what customers want. Special correspondent and Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell reports.”


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First Published:  23 February 2019
Revised (substantive):  1 September 2022

Opening quotation mark…So easie are men to be drawn to believe any thing, from such men as have gotten credit with them; and can with gentlenesse, and dexterity, take hold of their fear, and ignorance.Closing quotation mark

 THOMAS HOBBES (1588–1679), Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, 1st edn., 1651, p. 56

Opening quotation markEloquence alone without wisdom is the onely faculty needfull
to raise seditions.Closing quotation mark

 THOMAS HOBBES (1588–1679), Philosophicall Rudiments concerning Government and Society in 3 parts, 1651, 2.12.8:186
  This is an oblique reference to the Ciceronian theory of rhetoric, conjoining wisdom and eloquence (Wisdom restrains Eloquence, and Eloquence tempers Wisdom), as symbolized by the Hermathena of antiquity — an emblem of learning, “of Speech and of Truth,” and, by the late 17th century, the protector of artists (especially as refashioned in the cultural circles associated with the court of Rudolf II at Prague).

Data-Driven Demagoguery

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^ 17th-century head-piece, showing six boys with farm tools, engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677).

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If you have specific questions about planned content for this Web page on data-driven demagoguery — harnessing the power of Big Data and psychographics in the service of rhetorical trickery — contact the website editor.


A    B R I E F    H I S T O R I C A L    N O T E    O N    “F A K E    N E W S”

In this age of data-driven demagoguery, which enabled the monarchical presidency of Donald Trump, our centuries-old debate over “fake news” takes on new urgency.

Amendment I to the United States Constitution (adopted in 1791) reads in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (as printed in 1809)

It is customary to think of the freedoms of speech and press enshrined in the Bill of Rights at the end of the 18th century as representing the founding principles of these United States.

But our 17th-century founders saw things somewhat differently. At a time when deep political divisions, and growing Stuart authoritarianism in Britain, threatened to derail popular government in the most ethnically and religiously diverse colony in British North America (New Jersey), the settlers’ representative assembly chose to limit freedom of the press in the new proprietary colony, making it a criminal offense to “wittingly and willingly forge or publish any false news.”

Government regulation of mendacious speech and communication in this country dates back to 1645, when Puritans in Massachusetts (and subsequently, in the English Commonwealth) made wilful lying a statutory crime. In more heterogeneous New Jersey, the first law against the spread of fake news (called “false news” in the statute) — “whereby the minds of people are frequently disquieted or exasperated in relation to publick affairs” — was enacted by the Third General Assembly in 1675. Accordingly, propagators of false news were to be fined ten shillings, which was also the punishment for the first offence of slander (the second offence being twenty shillings). A subsequent law enacted by the Sixth General Assembly of New Jersey imposed even harsher penalties for spreading fake news and untruth.

In Virginia, statutes addressing the growing problem of “false news” were enacted during the commonwealth as part of the entire revision in 1657–1658 of Virginia law. The revisal, comprised in 131 acts deliberately adapted to Anglo-American republican institutions, was intended to secure the civil & religious rights of the people (other than Quakers, who were targeted by the assembly for “suppression” by the state). Most important, given President Trump’s assertion at a news briefing on 4/15/2020 of his power to adjourn Congress (“I will exercise my constitutional authority to adjourn both chambers of Congress.”) in order to clear the way for recess appointments to his administration, is the evolving political struggle between the executive and legislative branches of government, which dates to the founding of the House of Burgesses in 1619, and escalated during the commonwealth years, from 1656 to 1660:

During this period a severe conflict arose between the two branches of the government, as to the constitutional power of the governor and council to dissolve the assembly. A dissolution of the house of burgesses was ordered by the governor and council; but they peremptorily refused to be dissolved, and passed a resolution declaring that any member who should depart from his post, should be “censured as a person betraying the trust reposed in him by his country.” Several other resolutions equally display the republican sentiments of the assembly; and the firmness of its members. They took an oath of screcy; passed an order directed to the high sheriff of James City county, commanding him in the name of the Lord Protector, to obey no warrant or precept directed to him from any power, except the speaker of the house of burgesses, and finally declared “that they had in themselves the full power of the election and appointment of all officers in this country, until such time as they should have order to the contrary, from the supreme power in England;” and that they were “not dissolvable by any power yet extant in Virginia, but their own.” The house of burgesses had a complete triumph. They declared all former elections of governor and council null and void; re-elected coll. Samuel Mathewes, by whom, with his council, an attempt had been made to dissolve them; and prescribed the mode of electing the governor and council in future.

(W. W. Hening, The Statutes at Large, 4 vols., new edn., 1820–​1823, 1.430n*)

Early Virginia laws enacted hefty fines (“two thousand pounds of tobaccoe or less if the merritt of the cause deserve it”) for “Divulgers of False Newes” who engaged in the sort of rumor-mongering and conspiracy theories and agitprop that now flourish on social media — seditious speech, outlawed by Anglo-America’s founders, because it contributed to the spread of “false or dangerous news tending to the disturbance of the peace of this collony under the government now established.”

Back in England, Hobbists such as the marquis of Newcastle advocated censorship for those outside the governing elite — “theye Shoulde bee forbid Eyther Domestick or forrayne newse” — so as no unauthorized individual was tempted to “medle with State afayres” and “Everye man [is] kepte within his owne Circle off his office & place, for [...] Their medlinge did much disorder the Com[m]on wealth for theyr perticuler Gayne” (William Cavendish, Letter to Charles II, a scribal publication written c.1650s). Anticipating Donald Trump by several centuries, Margaret Cavendish not only joined her husband in recommending state censorship of what they viewed as seditious speech, but she also discredited the opposition’s journalists as “Parasites” and their journalism as fake news: “Gazets, which, for the most part, (out of Policy to amuse and deceive the People) contain nothing but Falshoods and Chimeraes ....” (Margaret Cavendish, The Life of the Thrice Noble, High and Puissant Prince William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle ..., 1667, d1r; qtd. and discussed further here)

facsimile of early-18th-century engraving

^  Idle Curiosity. Emblem 80 in Pierce Tempest’s English edition of Cesare Ripa’s Iconology, entitled Iconologia: or, Moral Emblems, by Caesar Ripa (London, 1709).
     Ripa’s satiric portrayal of the psychological pull of the tabloid press is glossed: “She has abundance of Ears and Frogs on her Robe; her Hair stands up on end; Wings on her Shoulders; her Arms lifted up: she thrusts out her Head in a prying Posture.  ¶   The Ears denote the Itch of knowing more than concerns her. The Frogs are Emblems of Inquisitiveness, by reason of their goggle-Eyes. The other things denote her running up and down, to hear, and to see, as some do after News.” (P. Tempest, Iconologia, 1709, 20)

Thus, government anxiety over the self-aggrandizing manipulation of fake news and obstinately “certain opinions in divinity and politics” (Thomas Hobbes, epistle dedicatory to his scribal publication of Behemoth, written c.1668) dates to 17th-century Anglo-America, and was shared by radicals both left and right. Hobbes even went so far as to argue that the revolutionaries’ more skillful deployment of popular media — stoking controversy over the one real grievance shared by diverse private interests throughout history (taxes) — led inexorably from paper to real bullets. In the dialogue between A. (a wise elder, with lived experience of what he speaks) and B. (younger student, eager to hear A.’s “relation of the actions you then saw, and of their causes, Pretentions, Justice, Order, Artifice and Events”) making up Hobbes’s analysis of the English civil war, Hobbes underlines the deep divisions between private and public interests which undermine every state, and which he believed only an absolute sovereign power can resolve.

     [A. (cont.)]   But this good Fortune [battles won by “the King’s Forces”] was not a little allay’d, by his besieging of Glocester, which, after it was reduc’d to the last gasp, was relieved by the Earl of Essex, whose Army was before greatly wasted, but now recruited with the Train’d Bands [militias], and Apprentices of London.
     B.   It seems not only by this, but also by many Examples in History, That there can hardly arise a long or dangerous Rebellion, that has not some such overgrown City, with an Army or two in its belly, to foment it.
     A.   Nay more; those great Capital Cities, when Rebellion is upon pretence of Grievances, must needs be of the Rebel Party, because the Grievances are for Taxes, to which Citizens, (that is Merchants, whose profession is their private gain) are naturally mortal Enemies, their only glory being, to grow excessively rich, by the wisdom of buying and selling.
     B.   But they are said to be, of all Callings, the most beneficial to the Commonwealth, by setting the poorer sort of people on work.
     A.   That is to say, by making poor people sell their Labour to them at their own prizes [prices], so that poor people, for the most part, might get a better Living by working in Bridewell [sc. a prison or house of correction in which inmates are put to work], than by spinning, weaving, and other such labour as they can do, saving that by working slightly, they may help themselves a little, to the disgrace of our Manufacture. And as most commonly they are the first Encouragers of Rebellion, presuming in their strength; so also are they, for the most part, the first that repent, deceiv’d by them that command their strength.

(Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth, the History of the Causes of the Civil-Wars of England ..., 1st authorized edn., issued by William Crooke as No. 1 in the Tracts of Mr. Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury ..., 1682, 130–131)

As noted in the sidebar at right, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has argued that our “lack of a set definition for” the term “fake news” presents numerous problems for would-be regulators. And trying to reconcile “multiple and inconsistent meanings” across the ages only further complicates things.

E.g., post-2016, Donald Trump has popularized a narrow and narcissistic definition of “fake news” as anything that is critical of him or his presidency. To his mind, the accuracy and truthfulness of the reporting has nothing to do with judging its value. Rather, evaluating the quality of the information being spread has been displaced by questions about the authenticity (trustworthiness) of the brand spreading it. Real news is, by definition, good news for him, and originates with what Trump calls “Republican/Conservative & Fair Media.” This nakedly partisan point of view is an outgrowth of the sort of tabloid journalism pioneered by Roger Ailes, a marketing genius who “turned Fox News Channel into the most-watched cable news network in the country after less than six years on the air.” “Ailes believed that ‘Fox News would fundamentally be a marketing and communications [operation] and not a newsroom’ and understood that people ultimately ‘want their news to confirm and conform to their worldview.’” It was Ailes who, in 1996, banked on his own astute observation that “People don’t want to be informed, they want to feel informed.” (qtd. in Meredith Blake, “Roger Ailes, the Newsmaker,” Los Angeles Times, 6/30/2019, p. E6)

Thus, for President Trump, “fake news” has nothing to do with epistemology, and everything to do with marketing (undermining brand authenticity, by associating MSM brands with biased reporting and unfair coverage). His stated intent is to delegitimize elite news organizations — “to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you” (as he reportedly told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl off-camera).

President Trump’s sophism concerning “fake news” adds an historic twist to American legal history, turning us even further from our radical republican beginnings.

Seventeenth-century America also had a fake news problem, which was remedied by the legal innovations of godly New England colonists, inspired by the “more truth and light” dictum of the separatist theologian John Robinson (1575/6?–1625) to make lying indictable.

Sadly, Anglo-Americans’ dissenting emphasis on the primacy of truth in government is no more. As the great lawyer, judge, jurisprudent, and parliamentarian, Sir Edward Coke, said in 1609 about criminal libel at common law, the truth “is not material” in President Trump’s reframing of “fake news.” And with this false rebranding of real as “fake,” we appear to have come full circle: in an odd turn of events, our pluto-populist president’s identification of MSM criticism with seditious libel (e.g., calling mainstream media “the enemy of the people”) smacks of Stuart tyranny.

( EDITED  What Financial Times economic correspondent Martin Wolf refers to as “pluto-populism” — “policies that benefit plutocrats, justified by populist rhetoric” — has a long history in Anglo-American dynastic politics, starting with the authoritarian leadership and populist policies of Protector Somerset, Edward Seymour [c.1500–1552], lord protector of England [1547–49] and effective ruler of England on behalf of Edward VI. The first such movement in Anglo-America was the pluto-populist uprising of 1676 known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Historians have divided over the charismatic Bacon’s motivations and character — “a hero who anticipated American independence”? or “a rabble-rousing, Indian-hating frontiersman unconcerned about democracy or independence”? — and the similarities between Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s and Trump’s “Make America Great Again” insurgency in the 2010s, leading to the Capitol Hill putsch on 6 January 2021, are striking. Bacon’s followers complained of overtaxation, political exclusion, religious persecution, and economic restrictions. The short-lived rebellion commenced with vigilante actions by frontier residents who opposed Governor William Berkeley’s Indian policy, mobilizing disgruntled frontier planters, small property holders, influential white women, white servants, and 400+ African slaves [promised their freedom by the rebels] against neighboring First Nations and the governor, at that moment in time when Virginia fully embraced slavery. For more on the grievances driving Bacon’s Rebellion, click/tap here.)

Of note, while the original Massachusetts Bay colonists “considered the privilege of petition a sacred right” (a longstanding English institution which was to be formally protected at the end of the 18th century in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), their experiment in theocracy would brook no criticism: “In 1649 at Salem, Mary Oliver was sentenced to be whipped not more than 20 stripes for saying the Governor was unjust. Only a few months after the colony was established, Philip Ratliffe was severely punished and banished for speaking against the government and Church, and Henry Lynn was whipped and banished for writing to England against the government and justice of Massachusetts Bay.” (T. L. Wolford, “The Laws and Liberties of 1648,” 156n40)

And under Stuart colonial rule in 1640, criticizing the legislature (in this case, Anglo-America’s first representative institution, the Virginia House of Burgesses) could cost you your livelihood: “Francis Willis, clerk of Charles River court turned out of his place and fined for speaking against the laws of last Assembly and the persons concerned in making them.” (Extract from the “Minutes of the Proceedings of the Governor and Council of Virginia” for 1640 [an MS. belonging to Thomas Jefferson]; transcribed in The Statutes at Large, ed. W. W. Hening, 4 vols., new edn., 1820–​1823, 1.552)

So President Trump’s lashing out against critics of his government — as in his spate of “America, love it or leave it” demagoguery (his tweets of 7/14/2019 and following) targeting four women of color in the U.S. House of Repesentatives (Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass, Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn) and their supporters — is not unprecedented.

But President Trump’s own propensity for spreading “false news” (untruths, disinformation, slander, BS) and manufacturing chaos is unprecedented. At this country’s founding during the 17th century, it was a criminal offense in multiple colonies (including Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) for any person at the age of discretion (14 years) “to wittingly and willingly make or publish any lye, which may be pernicious to the public weal, or with intent to deceive and abuse the people with false news and reports,” “whereof no certain authority or authentick letters out of any part of America, can be produced” in evidence of truthfulness, and “whereby the minds of people are frequently disquieted or exasperated in relation to publick affairs.” And the penalty for disrupting the public sphere in this manner was severe: any perpetrator of false reports was “to be stockt or whipt” if they lacked the means to pay the escalating fines which “shall be levied upon his or their estate, for the use of the publick.”


NOTE:   Early attempts to promote populist truth-telling in and about “any part of America” will be documented in detail in a related study, “Taming & Advancing Our Democracy” (forthcoming) and in a new write-up (also forthcoming) on colonial law and “prudential” law-making, to be added to the section entitled “Legislative process in the most rebellious and diverse of the founding Thirteen American Colonies (East New Jersey)”, in She-philosopher.​com’s study of California’s flawed Good Neighbor Fence Act of 2013.


facsimile of 17th-century engraving

^  A Writer Employed by the Dutch Army. Late 16th–early 17th century engraving, by Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), captioned: “Militiae nervum bellantis, Scriba, Gradiui / Adnumero intrepidis aera satellitibus.
     This print satirized the age’s insatiable appetite for tabloid news, along with those who reported it. In his right hand, this dandy of a journalist holds the tools of his scrivener’s trade — a rolled up paper. The military camp is in the background. Click/tap here to view a larger digital facsimile (a 246KB JPG file).
     Intelligencers had been “embedded with the military” (as we now call it in the United States) since at least the 16th century, and mostly reported on foreign affairs — some topical event, especially one which was military in nature, with repeated references to English troops serving overseas, “often with lurid or partisan details” (Joseph Frank, Beginnings of the English Newspaper 1620–1660, 2). Such early state propaganda made powerful, but limited, appeals to Englishmen: “one might expect that, after reading them [military newsbooks], young men would everywhere have rushed to join the colors. But such was not the case, for opposed to these sometimes calculating and generally stirring appeals was the spectacle of veteran soldiers, home from the wars — ragged, wounded, uncared for, forced to beg for subsistence, in danger of imprisonment as rogues and vagabonds. The sight of these men and the sound of their woes were undoubtedly enough to offset whatever emotions were engendered by the military news pamphets. As a result, impressment, rather than recruitment, was the only successful way of raising troops” to fight in the Low Countries, for example (Henry J. Webb, “Military Newsbooks during the Age of Elizabeth,” 248–9).
     Indeed, the partisan tabloid media — which provokes animosity and fans the flames of civil war in an already turbulent society — dates from this time. As does the sort of culture clash we see today (e.g. Fox News vs. MSNBC News), which placed cultural elites on the defensive. Established authors such as the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637) worried “in the 1620s over the power of the journalist to supplant the poet as the counsellor to princes” (Joad Raymond, The Invention of the Newspaper: English Newsbooks 1641–1649, 92). And later in the century, the politician and historian Sir Philip Warwick (1609–1683) “complained that the propaganda campaign of Viscount Falkland, Colepeper, and Hyde was excessively witty and elegant. Ultimately it would make the readers more uncomfortable and suspicious than compliant.” (J. Raymond, The Invention of the Newspaper, 96n94) Hobbes also argued that elite polemicists asserting “the Essential Rights of Sovereignty” against the republican “[dream] of a mixt Power of the King and the Two Houses” (to Hobbists, “a divided Power, in which there could be no Peace”) were dangerously out-of-touch with the generality of men: “for the People either understand not, or will not trouble themselves with Controversies in writing, but rather by his compliance by Messages, go away with an opinion, That the Parliament was likely to have the Victory in the War.” Moreover, “seeing that the Penners and Contrivers of those Papers [newsbooks supporting absolute monarchy and the Stuart king’s cause], were formerly Members of the Parliament, and of another mind, and now revolted from the Parliament, because they could not bear that sway in the House which they expected, men were apt to think, they believed not what they wrote." (T. Hobbes, Behemoth, the History of the Causes of the Civil-Wars of England ..., 1st authorized edn., issued by William Crooke as No. 1 in the Tracts of Mr. Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury ..., 1682, 129–130)
     The military newsbook — whether printed for public consumption, or the private newsletters penned by “such fellowes as Captin Rosingame thatt made 500£ a yeare with writinge newse to severall Persons,” according to the marquis of Newcastle (William Cavendish, Letter to Charles II, a scribal publication written c.1650s) — was an important precursor to the serially-published English newspaper, which was “invented” during the 17th century (Joad Raymond has dated its beginning a few months before the outbreak of civil war in England, where the early newspaper took root in the flourishing political print culture of the 1640s). While some historians attribute the first weekly English newsbooks (also called gazettes and diurnals) which appeared in November 1641, on the eve of the civil war, to the foreign-affairs “newspaper or coranto” which appeared in England in 1620, Raymond disagrees: “the immediate predecessor of the [English] newsbook was not the printed coranto but a manuscript” — “the scrivener’s newsletter.” (J. Raymond, The Invention of the Newspaper: English Newsbooks 1641–1649, 83) Newsletter writers, such as the dandy imaged by Goltzius, coexisted with print journalists for decades in the scribal marketplace, which survived the pressures on distribution and price, introduced by printed texts, well into the Restoration.
     Goltzius’s manuscript newsletter writer is depicted in typically bold style, by an artist known for his “swelling and tapering,” “dazzling engraved lines”: “The delight he takes in rendering swelling curves, be they as bombastic as they will, is irresistible. The Standard-Bearer [another military print; see following thumbnail] is a magnificent example. The pose [with striking similarities to that in A Writer Employed by the Dutch Army] was evidently a favourite one, for it is repeated in the nude figure of the Dawn (1588), a print in his broader manner.” (A. M. Hind, A History of Engraving and Etching from the 15th Century to the Year 1914, 120)
Thumbnail image of Goltzius print, *The Standard Bearer* (n.d.).
     “Goltzius was perhaps the first adequately to realise the capabilities of the graver in expressing tone and surface qualities. Much was done by an increased command of the graver in swelling or diminishing the breadth of each individual line in its own length, much again by the intermixture of lines of different thickness, a brilliant surface being often achieved by the alternation of thick and thin, while a calculated variation of the intervals between the lines of shading required to suit the various parts of the design is a third factor of scarcely less importance. Despite the efficacy of these means to render the most varied tone, the yielding folds of cloth, the shimmer of silk, the glister of steel, the whole tendency is a questionable encroachment on the domain of painting, which Dürer, Marcantonio, and the greatest masters of line had, perhaps consciously, avoided. But, for good or for ill, there are few rivals of Goltzius and his pupils, Jan Muller, Jacob Matham, and Jan Saenredam, as virtuosi of the burin.” (A. M. Hind, A History of Engraving and Etching from the 15th Century to the Year 1914, 120)
     Click/tap here to view a large digital facsimile (646KB file) of Goltzius’s print, The Standard-Bearer (n.d.), from the same series of war-time images communicating military news as A Writer Employed by the Dutch Army (n.d.).
     For more on Goltzius’s visual rhetoric, see the Editor’s Introduction for the digital reissue (2014) of Thomas Tryon’s The Planter’s Speech to his Neighbours & Country-Men of Pennsylvania, East & West-Jersey ... (1684) at our sister project known as Roses.

facsimile of early-17th-century engraved title-page

^  Title-plate for Diverse Pièces pour la Défense de la Royne Mere du Roy tres-chrestien Louys XIII (Antwerp, 1637), by Matthieu de Morgues (1582–1670), sieur de Saint-Germain. Engraved by Cornelis Galle I, after a design by Rubens.
     Author Matthieu de Morgues was a French polemicist, and chaplain of the French queen regent, Marie de Médicis (1573–1642), whom he here supported in her political power struggle with her son, Louis XIII, and the French cardinal and statesman, Armand Jean du Plessis Richelieu (1585–1642).
     The engraved title-page is a nice example of how past rulers, besieged by what Donald Trump would call “fake news” (events, facts & truths which tend to discredit a ruler and her government), put their spin on dynastic power politics, shifting the optics around their leadership, and constructing a more favorable narrative for themselves (always with themselves as triumphant hero).
     “This publication contains 801 pages of text, consisting of eleven political tracts against King Louis XIII of France and Cardinal Richelieu and in favour of the Queen-Mother, Maria de’ Medici. These tracts had been published separately during the years 1631 through 1637. They were reprinted in 1637 to serve the cause of Maria de’ Medici, who had been living in exile at the Brussels court since 1631. The author was Mathieu de Morgues, Abbot of Saint-Germain (Saint-Germain-Leprade, near Le Puy-en-Velay, 1582 – Paris, 1670). He began his career as a novice in the Jesuit Order in Avignon, and after a short stay there, he moved to Paris, where he completed his theological studies. In 1613, he became priest to Marguerite de Navarre, Henry IV’s first wife, and after her death in 1615, he assumed the same position in Louis XIII’s entourage. In the quarrel between the latter and his mother, Maria de’ Medici, Mathieu de Morgues took her side, and beginning in 1618 he wrote pamphlets in her defense. At first, he was still a close associate of Cardinal Richelieu’s, but when the latter opposed his nomination as Bishop of Toulon, they became enemies. De Morgues followed the Queen Mother into exile in the Netherlands. It was during her stay in Antwerp from 1635–36 that de Morgues met Balthasar Moretus and that for the first time the latter published the author’s tracts. When the Queen Mother left Brussels in 1638, de Morgues remained. The Cardinal-Infante bestowed upon him the position of Provost in Harelbeke near Courtrai. In 1643 he returned to France.
     “There is a large and interesting correspondence concerning this frontispiece between Moretus, the author, his brother M. du Verdier and Cornelis Galle.... It begins with a letter from Moretus to de Morgues, dated February 10, 1637, in which we first hear that Rubens is going to design the frontispiece. On April 3, 1637, Moretus wrote to du Verdier that Rubens had made the design but that another artist would execute the drawing. In spite of repeated letters from du Verdier urging Moretus to send the pencil drawing (‘le Crayon du frontispiece’ or ‘le frontispiece crayonné’) to Brussels, the drawing in question was finally sent to de Morgues on May 22, 1637. At his request, the draughtsman, Erasmus Quellin, made some corrections. The improved drawing was transmitted to de Morgues on June 20, 1637, two days after Quellin had been paid 24 guilders by Moretus. The drawing by Quellin is preserved in the Plantin-Moretus Museum. It has two pieces of paper loosely attached to it with corrections for the original sheet. Instead of transmitting the drawing to Cornelis Galle, de Morgues must have returned it to Moretus. The publisher sent it, together with the copper plate, to Galle on July 14, 1637. After a last check by the author, permission to engrave the frontispiece was given. By August 18, Galle had cut the frontispiece and delivered it to Moretus, but several small corrections were made by the engraver between August 29 and September 6. Cornelis Galle the Younger engraved the inscriptions.
     “On December 5, 1637, Galle was paid 12 guilders and 15 stuivers for printing 275 copies of the frontispiece. Nearly the whole edition, one thousand copies, was bought by the Queen Mother for 12,000 guilders. Moretus, at the request of du Verdier, distributed some copies in Antwerp, including one to Rubens.
     “The center of the frontispiece is dominated by an enthroned female figure wearing a crenellated crown and resting her arms on two obedient lions. According to Rooses, the lions represented Maria de’ Medici and Louis XIII being calmed down by a genius. Bouchery-Van den Wijngaert have given an even more complicated and far-fetched explanation. They maintain that the right side illustrates the present and the left side the future state of the relationship between the Queen Mother and her son. The enthroned female is supposed to be a personification of Maria’s political thoughts on this question: the lion to the right illustrates her present patient non-aggressiveness, the one to the left her new rise to power once Truth has been brought to light. In fact, there can be no doubt that the female figure with the turreted crown and the lions is Cybele, the mother of the gods. In this context she represents the Queen Mother. She keeps her lions under control, meaning she does not take any action against her enemies and is confident of the outcome of the differences between her and her son. This is explicitly shown by the symbols and mottoes in the upper corners. To the left is a dove with an olive branch in its beak, referring to Peace which will return, carrying the inscription CUM PACE REVERTAR (I shall return with Peace). On the other side, an eagle is poised above several snakes. Between them, one reads POSSEM SED NOLO (I could but I do not want to), meaning that the Queen Mother does not want to destroy her enemies, although she could do it.
     “In the Dedication of the book to King Louis XIII, Mathieu de Morgues emphasizes the idea that the quarrel betweeen the King and his mother is only the result of the slander uttered against her by her enemies (meaning of course Cardinal Richelieu) and that the reappearance of Truth will dissipate the differences between the two royal personages. The author hopes that his writings will help to achieve this and Rubens’s frontispiece translates this hope into two images. To the left of the title, Time rescues Truth and to the right Time destroys Discord. These two actions are closely linked since the latter will, in the opinion of de Morgues, follow the former immediately and automatically. Rubens had already used the same image of Time Rescuing Truth some fifteen years earlier in connection with the same conflict between Louis XIII and Maria de’ Medici in one of the paintings in the Medici Cycle.
     “At the bottom of the frontispiece, three small scenes illustrate the futility of the efforts of the Queen Mother’s opponents. To the left, a brillant sun breaks through the clouds and one reads PER NUBILA MAIOR (Greater through the clouds). In the center, a dragon vainly fights against the sun’s light and is killed by an arrow emanating from it. Beneath the monster, one reads PESTIFERO, INGRATO (To the pestiferous and ungrateful one). On the right, a head vainly tries to blow the clouds in front of the sun, which has chased them away. The inscription reads LUCI, QUOS EXTULIT, OBSTANT (They stand in the way of the light which has driven them away). A final inscription summarizes the fate of the villain who fights the light of truth: In Solem ingratus qui sibilat inficit auras, Caelesti debet luce perire draco (The ungrateful dragon who hisses against the sun, who infects the air, must perish through the heavenly light).
     “A proof print without the inscriptions is in the Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam. The copper plate is preserved in the Plantin-Moretus Museum.” (J. R. Judson and C. Van de Velde, Book Illustrations and Title-Pages [pt. 21 of Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard], 2 vols., 1978, 1.310–313)
     Click/tap here to view a larger digital facsimile (1.7MB JPG file) of the 1637 title-plate designed by Rubens.

facsimile of early-17th-century oil painting

^  The Triumph of Truth (1622–25). Last work in the Marie de’ Medici Cycle of oil paintings, by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).
     An heroic portrayal of the French queen regent, Marie de Médicis (1573–1642), recycling iconic themes from revered history paintings dating back to Apelles — in this case, the notion that “the truth will out” ... in time.
     This painting depicting Time Rescuing Truth was the source for Rubens’s initial design of the title-plate to Matthieu de Morgues’s Diverse Pièces pour la Défense de la Royne Mere du Roy tres-chrestien Louys XIII (Antwerp, 1637). See the Wikipedia page on the Marie de’ Medici cycle for an explanation of the painting’s symbolism, and for descriptions (and digital reproductions) of other paintings in the cycle.
     The extravagant visual rhetoric achieved by this influential cycle of heroic portraits was typical of court propaganda during the 17th century, including at England’s Caroline court, where Marie de’ Medici’s daughter, Henrietta Maria, was queen consort of Charles I. Not surprisingly, Rubens’s genius for heroic symbolism influenced book design across Europe, including illustrated works by Margaret and William Cavendish (with frontispieces and figures designed by Abraham van Diepenbeeck, a scholar of Rubens and, according to Walpole, “one of his best disciples”).
     I have long argued that Rubens’s art and celebrated collections of curiosities influenced the visual imagination of both William and Margaret Cavendish, who rented Rubenshuis from Rubens’s widow and lived there (1648–1660) during their time in exile.

facsimile of late-16th-century drawing

^  Time Rescuing Truth from Calumny (2nd half of 16th century). Allegorical drawing in pen and ink and wash, heightened with white bodycolor, over red and black chalk on paper, by the Italian Mannerist painter and architect, Federico Zuccaro (c.1540/41–1609).
     The design, another adaptation of the celebrated work by Apelles, satirizes the artist’s own court enemies who have slandered him, all the while proclaiming his innocence and eventual triumph over adversity and exile.
     The classical truism about time rescuing truth is worth revisiting in these glory days of fake news, when the unprecedented speed and reach of communication via social media gives the lie an ever greater head start on the truth, in all its colors.
     Now that we have a pathological liar as president, with numerous online counters tracking all the presidential untruths (many emanating as tweets with immediate global reach), I often encounter the witticism — “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” — variously attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, Ann Landers, etc., none of whom have proven to be its original author.
     Researchers have instead traced the source of the conceit to the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift (1667–1745): see “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes” by Garson O’Toole (posted to The Quote Investigator website, 7/13/2014).
     But I would argue that Swift, in turn, was reconstructing an age-old visual commonplace for the modern communications age. The classical optimism of the history painters — awarding to truth the final triumph — was demonstrably not credible in 1710. Like Hobbes before him, Swift knew that “if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work ... Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect....”

facsimile of early-17th-century engraving

^  Queen Elizabeth on Horseback (title from Horace Walpole); alternatively titled Truth Presents the Queen with a Lance and Queen Elizabeth as St. George. Inscribed across the sky (upper left): “ELIZABETHA ANGLIÆ ET HIBERNIÆ REGNÆ. &c.” Engraved after 1625 by Thomas Cecill (fl. c.1625–1640); printed after 1642.
     Actual dating of Cecill’s Queen Elizabeth on Horseback is difficult, since the printseller Peter Stent (b. in or before 1613, d. 1665) of Guiltspur Street, didn’t open his own shop until 1642, where he sold engravings printed on his own rolling presses from plates Stent had acquired second hand. “Disruptions during the civil war presented an opportunity to purchase over 700 plates from printsellers and artists” and we know that “Stent aggressively added new pieces until he had eight times more plates than any predecessor — over 1750.” (Alexander Globe, ODNB entry for Stent, n. pag.) Moreover, many of the plates, including those Stent commissioned, even from high-caliber artists such as Wenceslaus Hollar, were reworked by lesser artists. “Copper for plates was scarce because of the war, so Stent ... did not hesitate to buy up old plates and to employ journeymen to rework them to suit [his] immediate needs.” (R. Doggett, J. L. Biggs, and C. Brobeck, Impressions of Wenceslaus Hollar, 27) Plus, the audience for prints was shifting, and protecting the integrity of the artistic process was less important to those who were not connoisseurs. During the 1640s and 1650s, Stent catered “to a clientele that was more interested in revolutionary political and religious ideas and in the growing civil conflict” than in “copies of works of art.” (Doggett, Biggs & Brobeck, 24) His “business was driven not by artistic considerations, but by the question of whether his projects could recapture the investment in materials, shop overheads, and hourly rates paid to engravers.” (A. Globe, n. pag.) Stent did whatever the new commercial business model required, and he thrived.
     How or when Stent acquired Cecill’s historical portrait of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; r. 1558–1603) is unknown to me, as is the date when Stent made prints from Cecill’s plate with his name affixed. It’s quite possible that there were several states of the plate, with prints in circulation that do not bear Stent’s imprint (positioned beneath border of the print, at lower left: “sould by Peter Stent”), which has been cropped from the copy I reproduce here.
     This civil-war-era engraving by Cecill contributed to the potent narrative of Elizabeth I’s “glorious Fame” that took on a life of its own during the 17th century, as images and stories of her “heroicke Acts, and Divine Vertues” (depicting Queen Elizabeth as Justice, Temperance, Wisdom and Fortitude, personified) circulated widely, and schoolbooks promoted her reign — identified with “Justice, Valour, Honour, Temperance, Magnanimity, Clemency, Truth, Liberality, Civility, Courtesy” — to future generations.
     Cast as “the most Religious, learned and prudent Empresse that ever lived on earth: and Soveraigne Head, or supreme Ruler, next God, over this flourishing Kingdome” (Abraham Darcie, “To the Noble and Wel-Disposed Reader” in Annales, by William Camden, 3 books [part 1], 1625, n. pag.), Elizabeth I became a popular, unifying figure for a troubled commonwealth, especially during the 1640s and 1680s, when the Stuarts (Charles I, Charles II, James II) divided the nation.
     This particular print sold by Stent glorifies Elizabeth’s famous speech rallying the troops, along with public opinion, when the supposedly “invincible” Spanish Armada (130 ships, carrying about 8,000 sailors and 19,000 infantrymen) was sent to invade England at the end of May 1588. Elizabeth was in her mid-50s when she attired herself as a warrior queen (Pallas Athena qua commander-in-chief), and viewed her army at the hastily assembled Tilbury Camp (on the north side of the Thames estuary, at west Tilbury), then delivered her martial address the following day.
     The historian and herald, William Camden (1551–1623), chronicled Elizabeth I’s Armada Speech to the Troops at Tilbury Camp (9 August 1588) in the following glowing terms: “Being then already at sea, they [the Spanish fleet] tooke their route towards the North, followed by the English Fleete, unto whom they would sometimes shew their prowesse: and many being of opinion they would returne, the Queene, with a Kingly courage, mounted on horsebacke, and holding in her hand the trunchion of an ordinary Captaine, made a review of her Army, & campe, which was at Tilbury, walkes up and downe, sometimes like a Woman, and anon, with the countenance and pace of a Souldier, and with her presence and words fortifieth the courages both of the Captaines and Souldiers beyond all beliefe.” (William Camden, Annales. The True and Royall History of the Famous Empresse Elizabeth Queene of England France and Ireland &c., part 1 in 3 books, 1st Eng. trans. by Abraham Darcie, 1625, 3.282–283)
     Elizabeth’s modern biographer points out that “The myth that the might of Spain was overcome by England’s little ships is far from the true story. The English fleet was in fact the most up-to-date and formidably armed in existence. The odds were stacked against England only if the Armada succeeded in landing Parma’s [i.e., Alexander Farnese (1545–1592), Prince of Parma, and Spain’s appointed Governor of Flanders (aka the Spanish Netherlands and the Low Countries) from 1578–1592] expeditionary force. Yet, the logistics of co-ordinating the ships of Don Alonso Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, seventh duke of Medina Sidonia, with Parma’s soldiers proved extremely problematic. With little or no prospect of success for the combined operation which was the whole point of the exercise, the advantage was seized by the English fleet on 7 August [1588] through the use of eight fireships, the existence of which was successfully hidden from the Spanish. It was a small but decisive victory, assisted by the weather. As the Spanish fleet, still more or less intact with some 112 vessels, was driven northwards, around Scotland to a series of shipwrecks in the Atlantic and on Irish coasts, Elizabeth struck the Armada medal which sounded a note of protestant providentialism rather than triumphalism. ‘God breathed and they were scattered.’” (Patrick Collinson, ODNB entry for “Elizabeth I (1533–1603), queen of England and Ireland,” n. pag.) Barely half the original Armada returned to port.
     Elizabeth’s humble turn to “protestant providentialism rather than triumphalism” in victory was also a key part of England’s Armada mythography, popularized in such press accounts as: “After this great Deliverance Queen Elizabeth (who ever held ingratitude Base, Especially towards her Almighty Protector) as she began [the Spanish skirmish] with Prayer, so she ended with Praise and Thanksgiving, commanding Publick Thanksgiving to be Celebrated in the Cathedral of St. Pauls, on Sunday Sept. 18. at which time 11. of the Spanish Ensigns were hung upon the lower Battlement of that Church.  ¶   Queen Elizabeth her self on Sunday Sept. 24. came to St. Pauls, and humbling her self on her Knees, with audible voice she praised God for that Wonderful Deliverance wrought to Her and her People.” (Anon., in T. Malthus’s abridgement of Sir Francis Drake Revived, retitled The Voyages of the Ever Renowned Sr. Francis Drake into the West Indies ... To which Is Added, an Account of his Valorous Exploits in the Spanish Invasion, 1683, 165) Of note, this glowing account of magnanimous Elizabethan conduct was published when the British commonwealth was again bitterly divided, in a book intended “to divert that Spirit of Contention that is now arisen in every one almost against his Brother, and to excite, in the Spirits of Young People especially, an AEmulation of this Worthy Patriot [Drake] in Advancing the Glory of their Country by Foreign Conquests.” (T. Malthus, “To the Reader,” The Voyages of the Ever Renowned Sr. Francis Drake into the West Indies ..., 1683, A2v)
     Cecill’s print harnesses horsepower & myth (the legend of Saint George and the Dragon, the classical allegory of Time Rescuing Truth) to magnify Elizabeth’s charismatic leadership & “Kingly courage” at Tilbury. The artist re-imagines the military scene as heroic allegory — depicting Elizabeth, astride a magnificent white steed, as a majestic figure clothed in white velvet, wearing a helmet decorated with flowers, and carrying a sword and shield, with the sun shining off her silver breastplate. Beneath her horse is a 7-headed dragon, disjointed armor and miscellaneous weapons. In the background, on the shore at Tilbury, are various formations of the soldiers whom Elizabeth inspired to greatness in battle, and on the sea is the Spanish Armada, instantly recognizable by its familiar crescent formation. In Cecill’s revisioning, Elizabeth accepts a lance extended to her by a bare-breasted female figure emerging from the flames, holding a book lettered TRUTH in her right hand. This evocative exchange between mythical women concerning the truth and legacy of Armada conduct and events — with all its religious overtones for Cecill’s mid-17th-century audience — presents us with a more complex personification of royalty, and a less omnipotent monarch, than did contemporary Elizabethan treatments of the subject.
     Cecill’s print reflects the nostalgic cult of Elizabeth which had been building since the 1620s. According to this narrative, the virgin warrior-queen’s prudent reforming spirit — her inspirational religious, political, and humanist vision for “my Realm” — was on full display in her courageous performance in the field during the Spanish invasion of 1588. What “my faithful, and loving people” actually saw and experienced during Elizabeth’s carefully staged royal visit to Tilbury on 8 and 9 August 1588 is anyone’s guess. “Perhaps an objective observer would have seen no more than a battered, rather scraggy spinster in her middle fifties perched on a fat white horse, her teeth black, her red wig slightly askew, dangling a toy sword and wearing an absurd little piece of parade-armour like something out of a theatrical property-box. But that was not what her subjects saw, dazzled as they were by more than the sun on the silver breastplate or the moisture in their eyes. They saw Judith and Esther, Gloriana and Belphoebe, Diana the virgin huntress and Minerva the wise protectress and, best of all, their own beloved queen and mistress, come in this hour of danger, in all simplicity to trust herself among them.” (Garret Mattingly, The Defeat of the Spanish Armada [Boston, 1959], 349; qtd. in Winfried Schleiner, “Divina Virago: Queen Elizabeth as an Amazon,” 168)
     The earl of Leicester, “Generall of Her Majesties auxiliary troops” in the Low Countries, who established the fortified camp at Tilbury and arranged Elizabeth’s visit to the field, had “advised against ‘imploying yor owne person in this daungerous action ... yet wyll I not that in some sort, so princely and so rare a magnanymytye shold not appere to yor people and the world as yt ys’. As a compromise [the queen] should ‘spend two or three days to se both the camp and the fort’. Yet even the visit was controversial, for the privy council was seriously worried that Elizabeth might be the target for an assassination attempt.” (Simon Adams, ODNB entry for “Dudley, Robert, earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588), courtier and magnate,” n. pag.)
     The queen was undeterred, trusting to God and placing “my chiefest strength, and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects.” (Elizabeth I, Armada Speech, delivered on 9 August 1588, prior to the defeat of the Spanish Armada) Her presence in the camp, walking fearlessly among “armed multitudes” to inspect her troops in person, worked wonders; but her rousing battlefield speech the next day “was pure magic.” (P. Collinson, ODNB entry for Elizabeth I, n. pag.) It was her galvanizing speech — delivered by “a weak and feeble woman” with “the heart and Stomach of a King” — that transformed the military battle into a national mission of epic proportions (a righteous war against tyrants in defense of liberty & justice).
     Nor was this the first time that Elizabeth had cast herself and her kingdom as military saints fighting against tyranny and oppression. While Drake was preparing for his Great Expedition to Spanish America in 1585, Elizabeth accepted the protectorate of the Netherlands (July 1585). About 2 weeks after Drake sailed in September, the queen published her Declaration accepting the protectorate of the Netherlands (dated at Richmond, 1 October 1585), setting forth the reasons which had induced her to give aid to the afflicted and oppressed people of the Low Countries.
     Although it is little-known today, historians consider Elizabeth’s principled proclamation, justifying the people’s rebellion against the tyranny of rulers who infringed and attempted to subvert their rights and liberties, to be “one of the noblest state papers that was ever written” and, by arousing the spirit of American colonization, one of the founding documents for the U.S., “not unworthy to take a place beside the Declaration of American Independence.” Of note, “Many of those who learnt their lesson under the influence of the sentiments expressed in this document were afterwards very instrumental in establishing English Protestant colonies in America.” (A. Brown, The Genesis of the United States, 2 vols., 1890, 1.17) In the forthcoming study, “The Missing Historical Context: Anglo-American Gun Laws & the Original Intent of the Second Amendment”, I discuss the foundational role of military men, who served in the Low Countries, in transporting Elizabeth I’s human-rights rhetoric to the mainland colonies of Anglo-America.
     I am working on a digital edition of the queen’s 1585 Declaration for the LIBRARY.
     In the meantime, see this website’s illustrated IN BRIEF biography of Queen Elizabeth I for another of Elizabeth’s celebrated photo ops, and the earl of Newcastle’s appreciation of Elizabeth’s genius in knowing “at what time to play the King, and when to qualifie it, but never put it of[f]; for in all triumphs whatsoever or publick shewing your self, you cannot put upon you too much King.” (William Cavendish, Letter of Instructions to Prince Charles for his Studies, Conduct, and Behaviour, written c.1638)
     Click/tap here to view a larger digital facsimile (615KB JPG file) of Cecill’s popular print, Queen Elizabeth on Horseback.

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