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Social Media Freedom in the Crosshairs

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By Walter Donway

March 24, 2017

 

The Breitbart organization ought to send a big check for publicity and advertising to the Columbia School of Journalism. The chart-and jargon-battered reader now knows that the Breitbart organization, and all the rightwing news sites it “anchors,” managed to determine the outcome of the 2016 election in the world’s most information- and communications-rich, educated, and politically powerful nation. Wow! What a prospectus for an initial public offering.

This week, the “old” news media (I prefer “old” to “mainstream” and certainly to “professional”) showed further signs of zeroing-in on a scapegoat for their devastating defeat and humiliation in the 2016 election. The scapegoat is the “social media.”

We saw it coming. But this weekend, the first story in the New York Times Magazine was “Click Bait,” designating President Donald Trump as “troll-in-chief” and launching into a sophisticated, extended smear reminiscent of the (also “old”) Left—that he is a “fascist.”

An Academic (with a Grant from Soros) Report

The same weekend, the Columbia School of Journalism released a report commissioned by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, entitled Study:  Breitbart-led Rightwing Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda. Can’t make it clearer than that, right?

Oh, wait. I can run that through the Google translation system. Got it. “Upstart internet news organizations, abetted by millions on Facebook and Twitter, prevented the New York Times and CNN from defeating Trump.” Thank you, Google. Clearer, now.

As an “academic” report, the Columbia analysis, of course, is “neutral.” Beginning factually enough, the report says that in the wake of an “an election that shook the foundations of American politics,” the (old) media “looked for an external disruption to explain the unanticipated victory—with theories ranging from Russian hacking to “fake news.”

This seemed like a promising beginning. Then, the next paragraph established the report’s thesis—and tone—and may hint at the line of attack the media is going to take. Here, the Columbia School of Journalism is admonishing its graduates in positions throughout the American “old” media to focus on the real problem—and target. The next paragraph names that target:

We have a less exotic, but perhaps more disconcerting explanation: Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that a rightwing media network anchored around Breitbart used social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world.

To understand what they mean by “hyper-partisan” do we contrast it with the coverage of the election by the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN? There is no more “hyper-partisan” than their coverage of the election. I documented again and again their false charges, fake news, transparent slanting, and shameful double standard in relentlessly attack Donald Trump. Even supporters of Trump may not grasp the extent of the blatant distortions.

But to return to that paragraph, we see the targets all in a row: “rightwing media network,” “Breitbart,” “social media,” and “hyper-partisan perspective.”

Did this “right wing” media David step forth, seized the attention of an unsuspecting American electorate, and bring down the liberal-left establishment’s Goliath in 2017? Or did Americans no longer willing to tolerate the leftward drift and arrogant dictation of politically correct opinion of the “old” media—apparent and metastasizing since at least the mid-1960’s–provide the explosive impetus and audience that thrust the new media to prominence?

Of course, these diligent researchers did not read and analyze 1.25 million media stories. As they explain, there are software programs that analyze who “shares” online media stories–say by “tweeting” or “sharing” or “hyperlinking.” How many stories from a given publication are shared? If a reader shares a story, what other publications does that reader follow and share? There are many daunting cluster charts and diagrams.

My conclusion is that the Breitbart organization ought to send a big check for publicity and advertising to the Columbia School of Journalism. The chart-and jargon-battered reader now knows that the Breitbart organization, and all the rightwing news sites it “anchors,” managed to determine the outcome of the 2016 election in the world’s most information- and communications-rich, educated, and politically powerful nation. Wow! What a prospectus for an initial public offering.

And when did this daring David stride onto the scene to challenge the world’s largest, best-funded, and most—um–“professional” media? Breitbart began in 2007, less than a decade ago. The writers of the report did not (entirely) miss the irony. They write, and the long paragraph is worth quoting,

A remarkable feature of the right-wing media ecosystem is how new it is. Out of all the outlets favored by Trump followers, only the New York Post existed when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. By the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, only the Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh, and arguably Sean Hannity had joined the fray. Alex Jones of Infowars started his first outlet on the radio in 1996. Fox News was not founded until 1996. Breitbart was founded in 2007, and most of the other major nodes in the right-wing media system were created even later.

I do hate to interrupt this tribute to the triumphant insurgence, in just a few decades, against the once almost unchallenged liberal-left agenda for an ever-growing interventionist-welfare state. But I am wondering, about here: Did this “right wing” media David step forth, seized the attention of an unsuspecting American electorate, and bring down the liberal-left establishment’s Goliath in 2017? Or did Americans no longer willing to tolerate the leftward drift and arrogant dictation of politically correct opinion of the “old” media—apparent and metastasizing since at least the mid-1960’s–provide the explosive impetus and audience that thrust the new media to prominence and joined it in the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the election of Donald Trump?

The report avoids denouncing any position taken by the political candidates. Nothing being judged right or wrong here, folks. It is just that the “right-wing” media is “hyper-partisan,” “insulated,” “extreme,” and “propagandistic.” Right-wing media skillfully blended bits of facts with “false and misleading narratives.”  Right-wing media “consistently attack” reporters in the old news media.

Or, to sum it up, as “neutrally” as is possible for them:

What we find in our data is a network of mutually-reinforcing hyper-partisan sites that revive what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics,” combining decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world.

But this report, as Mr. Soros intended, presents itself as non-partisan. It emphasizes that it made no evaluation of the contents of the media outlets analyzed. It did not need to do so. That piece of the puzzle, for the alert reader tuned-in to the opinion-center of the universe (New York City, where the Open Society Foundation, New York Times, and Columbia School of Journalism are located) quickly appeared.

The New York Times Paints the Target

Almost on the same day, the lead story in the New York Times Magazine, March 5, 20017, by Amanda Hess, and with the title “Click Bait,” reached for an explanation in terms of context for the disaster suffered by the left and the “old” media:

Over the course of Donald Trump’s staggering political rise, observers tried to make sense of him by borrowing a metaphor from the internet: Trump, they said, was a troll.

Let me interrupt, briefly, to say that, as an observer throughout the primary and elections, this explanation of Trump never occurred to me. What I noticed, first, was his rather consistent stand against burgeoning government power, a series of positions staked out against taxes, regulations, the attack on the energy industry in the name of “climate change,” the public-education lobby against such innovations as vouchers, and proliferation of government power into the arts, humanities, and higher education.

A “smear” can be crude—“you’re a fascist”—or it can be sophisticated, requiring two and half pages of the New York Times Magazine.

A “smear” can be crude—“you’re a fascist”—or it can be sophisticated, requiring two and half pages of the New York Times Magazine.

First, Ms. Hess, whose media reputation was made writing about “gender,” especially that the internet is misogynist, threatening to women, first establishes that candidate Donald J. Trump is a “troll.” She defines “troll” for us as “a figure that skips across the web, saying whatever it takes to rile up unsuspecting targets, relishing the chaos in his wake and feasting on attention, good or bad.”

I hope that clarifies the nature of a “troll” as contrasted with the controversial poster of ideas and opinions who angers some readers, including “unsuspecting targets.” As for “relishing the chaos” and “feasting on attention”—you’ll have to let us know how you can tell, Ms. Hess.

I mean, do you post on Facebook or Linked-In or tweet on Twitter? If so, do you—“skipping across the web”—rile anyone? Are they “unsuspecting”?  Do you “relish the chaos” and “feast on the attention”? Are you a troll?

Ms. Hess begins her article by quoting assertions that President Trump is a “troll.” And ends, triumphantly, with quoting an anonymous internet user who called Trump “the most superior troll.” Trump replied, rejecting the implied smear of equating his use of Twitter to reach tens of millions of voters with the vague negative connotation of “troll,” by responding “a great compliment.” I mean, the Columbia report says that the guy, not exactly of the “computer generation,” mastered this medium well enough to defeat a legion of old media Goliaths to become president of the United States.

Having established Mr. Trump as a “troll,” Ms. Hess now simply calls the roll of “trolls” whom she wishes to associate with (smear over) Mr. Trump. It is as transparent and dishonest as an article discussing Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy, Doc, and Walter Donway. Get it? All dwarfs!

Her tale, she says, is about “Troll culture as forged in the primordial ooze of the internet…” She begins with the apparently infamous troll “Mr. Bungle, a character dressed as a clown in a semen-stained costume.” And, jumping to 2014, “the video game developer, Zoe Quinn, in some kind of affair that became #gamergate.” Apparently, Milo Yiannopolous, who then was a social media reporter for Brietbart, commented on that controversy. So far, absolutely no mention of President Trump.

Finally, a connection. The chief executive officer of Breitbart, which hired Mr. Yiannoplous, who reported on “#gamegate,” is Steven K. Bannon, who became Mr. Trump’s election campaign advisor. Ms. Hess drops the troll chain-of-association, for now, and darts back to the French philosopher, existentialist John-Paul Sartre, after World War II, writing about anti-Semites and that they were not “unaware of the absurdity” of their view. Now, Ms. Hess takes us back to the present, with, she promises, a “resurgence of this winking Nazi type…”

Do you see the long, vague smear unfolding? So far, Mr. Trump has owned to being a “troll” because he discovered that the social media, a direct daily connection with millions of potential voters, circumvented the iron grip of the “old” media and its interpolation of his views to his audience. He could wake up in the morning, read a new headline attacking him, and not wait until his staff issued a press release that the media might pick up later in the day. He could reply instantly, taking the initiative away from the media for the first time in American history.

But now, somehow, we are talking about Jean-Paul Sartre and anti-Semites. It gets better. PewDiePie, apparently, is a game on YouTube that featured Nazi symbols.  Okay, I believe you. From there, we skip without transition (none! Check it out!) to Richard Spencer, a proponent of white nationalism—the view that European civilization and its values are being diluted by cultures and races that will destroy its strengths. His followers cried “Hail, Trump!” at a rally.

Now, with no transition, we have a paragraph on David Duke, who showed up in Washington, says Ms. Hess, with a Pepe the Frog lapel pin (this goes back to the PewDiePie game) and was punched in the face while being interviewed.

Time to tie all this to the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, who has triumphed over the combined power of the American corporate media, including by…tweeting…and has refused to be smeared as a “troll.”

Ms. Hess has only two paragraphs to go. I thought that I might summarize her final thoughts. I find myself unable to do so. How is she going to make a final dramatic swipe to spread the long, drawn-out smear over President Trump? I cannot find a way to generalize. Let Ms. Hess have her say:

Recently, we have witnessed a resurgence of this winking Nazi type. Pewdiepie, a wildly popular YouTube video game star, filmed a “prank” in which he hired two men to hold up a sign that said “Death to Jews.” Pepe the Frog, an online cartoon that morphed into 4chan meme, has been co-opted by plugged-in fascists who redraw his with swastikas as eyes. And after the white nationalist Richard Spencer…” and “These days even David Duke…is sharing racist memes and getting called a “troll.”

Well, no mention of President Trump, as yet.  But in the final paragraph, Ms. Hess finally gets back to Trump—time to swipe the long smear over the target. She writes:

…Becoming President has blown Mr. Trump’s cover: There’s nothing more consequential than this. Trolls are typically outsiders, and sad ones.  They don’t fit into the dominant group, so they terrorize from the sidelines. Part of what makes the Trump administration so alarming is that the troll sensibility now dominates, And when that happens, it’s reminiscent of what Sartre describes: “No reason, no principle, just pure exercise of power.”

And there you have the smear. Mr. Trump a troll. Another troll is Mr. Bungle; Breitbart technology reporter, Yiannopolous, reports the Mr. Bungle story; Brietbart CEO, Steven Bannon, becomes advisor of Trump’s campaign; Jean-Paul Sartre said anti-Semites are self-aware; a You-Tube game featured Nazi symbols; the followers of Richard Spencer, a white national, cry out “Hail Trump”; David Duke, associated with the KKK, shows up at a Washington meeting with a Pepe the Frog lapel pin; President Trump’s “troll sensibility” dominates the White House.

Oh, go ahead, Ms. Hess! Just say that President Trump is a Nazi, an associate of Richard Spencer and David Duke, no doubt a fan of the Nazi YouTube game, and an anti-Semite. Is yours, too, the “hate that dare not speak its name”?

But she can’t do that because there is no logical connection. It is the nature of a smear to use guilt by association—though usually a little stronger than “association” by mere sequential mention in the same article. She has not quite mastered the smear.

Watch Your Back, “Social Media”

I discuss this article at length, more than its content deserves, because it is the kick-off piece in America’s most reputable newspaper and it is a classic smear. By association with a list of internet trolls, and a flashback to Sartre, it smears the president of the United States as a Nazi.

In doing so, it completes the work of the report of the Columbia School of Journalism. That report, in the name of neutrality, did not mention the content—the ideas, the policies—upheld by the “rightwing” media. Ms. Hess’s column supplies that content: Social media, as utilized by Mr. Trump, was a vehicle of anti-Semitic, Nazi propaganda.

The signal is clear. The social media’s CEOs are the real target, here. They are garden-variety liberals, eager to do the right thing, terrified to be distanced from the establishment—and now pushed to “patrol,” to “monitor,” the content of what we write.

This would not be tolerated if it were a policy of the government toward the news media. But, rightly, the only “regulation” of activity on private systems, like Facebook and Twitter, is the discretion of its owners.

If someone reports you, or a Facebook system spots you, your post is sent to two fact-checking organizations; if they both disagree with the post’s statements, the post gets a “disputed” tag. These are small beginnings. As indicated by the two stories analyzed here, the crusade to swat down competition to the old media is just getting underway.

It is too soon to tell if that is what the new enemies of “social media” are counting on. Certainly, social media CEO’s have rushed to “cooperate.” The “extremists” on the right have had their Twitter accounts closed. That has done little, so far, to silence the unruly outbreak on social media of opposition to the liberal-left.

We must await the next moves by enemies of the upstart news media: that is, by long-established news organizations fighting for their dominance of American public opinion. Just this week (March 7), it was reported that Facebook began to put “disputed” tags on fake news. If someone reports you, or a Facebook system spots you, your post is sent to two fact-checking organizations; if they both disagree with the post’s statements, the post gets a “disputed” tag. These are small beginnings. As indicated by the two stories analyzed here, the crusade to swat down competition to the old media is just getting underway.

It probably is too late to suppress the tens of millions of Americans who have experienced the satisfaction of expressing their views, immediately and directly, to other Americans. They are inured to controversy, threats, and sanctions.

No viewpoint, opinion, argument is excluded (“filtered”) from social media unless you become a target by achieving too much influence. The pure air of free thought, free exchange, is intoxicating.

I almost can pity the grand old media. While I was growing up, our great free Republic, as represented by the “press,” invited you to write “letters to the editor.” Get that? You have a disagreement with what we say? Another opinion? Only one place to send it for ‘consideration”: The editor. Wasn’t that enough for you?

Now, the old media have come up against freedom, and, I know, it can be painful.  W.H. Auden wrote: “We wandered lost on the mountains of our choice/ And wept, freedom was so wild…”

 

Explore

 

“Extremism of the Art of Smearing” by Ayn Rand

“Driving Trump from Office: The First Skirmish” by Walter Donway

“The Media Stage a “Post-Modern” Election by Walter Donway

 

 

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