Friday, November 3, 2017

Russian Bots and Our Own Worst Enemy

Last night I did a silly thing. I wrote a long, hotheaded, self-righteous Facebook rant urging people to be less hotheaded and self-righteous. I even began by saying, "I started writing, and it turned into a diatribe. Eh, damn the torpedoes." Eventually, my head grew somewhat cooler and I realized that my own impassioned righteousness was a great example of the frame of mind I was warning other people to watch for. So I deleted my rant and decided it would work better as a blog post.

The bee in my bonnet this time was Russian bots and troll farms, and how they've worked to undermine American democracy. I was catching up on the story after the House and Senate Intelligence committees grilled lawyers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter about Russian meddling using their platforms. I try to follow stories like this, because in my job as a reference librarian I teach a class about recognizing fake news and other misinformation. I had honestly fallen behind on this story, though, and I was pretty gobsmacked by some of its details. Hence, the rant below:

Two things in particular were really stunning to me: 1. Russian Facebook pages posing as American activist groups, across the political spectrum, were able to organize actual protests. Using nothing but computer terminals in St. Petersburg, they were able to get people in the United States to leave their computers and go march for various causes. One protest in New York had at least 5,000 people show up. In Houston, pro-Muslim protesters and anti-Sharia-law protesters clashed outside a mosque, and BOTH groups were manipulated into doing so by Russian Facebook pages. 2. Russia is trolling both sides. That's the second thing I hadn't fully realized. Russian trolls, bots, pages, and ads on social media were (and are) posing as partisans at each end of the political spectrum.

But why play both sides like that? Like most people, I had heard that Putin favored Trump over Clinton, and I knew that Russian intelligence and propaganda organizations had tried to influence the election (that's not my liberal bias; it's the conclusion of the American intelligence community, as outlined in this brief from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.) But I hadn't realized that Russian trolls and bots had posed as partisans on the left as well as the right. What was their goal? Apparently it was to make democracy weak and chaotic; and to appear weak and chaotic, both to Americans and to Russians who might sympathize with pro-democracy movements there. Yes, they wanted Trump elected, but their broader goal was fostering division and weakening democracy in the United States. And they did a pretty good job of it. Just how good, we don't know yet.

But what we can conclude right now is that Russians aren't the only ones to blame. All they did was add fuel to a fire we lit ourselves. American civility, unity, and critical thinking were already in decline. We had already let ourselves become hyper-polarized and fearful of each other. The internet had helped us cluster into little tribal bubbles of ideology until anyone outside our bubble seemed insane and evil. Many of us had already begun thinking of other Americans as our enemies. I've certainly been guilty of these things. Russia just fanned the flames, and they did it by playing on our hotheadedness, our gullibility, and our partisan tribalism. On both sides, we're so sure we're right that a foreign government can count on us to share false information without questioning it--often without even reading it--if it outrages us enough and fits our pre-existing beliefs. And if it fits the pre-existing beliefs of the like-minded people we've surrounded ourselves with. They can't count on everyone to share it, but they can count on a certain percentage of us to. And again, that's true across the political spectrum.

And that's a big problem. Hyper-polarization, gullibility, ideological absolutism, and demonization of decent people who disagree with us--these things are like cyanide to a democracy. Judge Learned Hand once said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias." If he was right, then we've lost sight of the spirit of liberty, which in my opinion is also the spirit of democracy.

I guess what I'm saying is, things won't get better unless we as Americans take a hard look at ourselves. We're too gullible, too hotheaded, too divided, and too sure of our own tribe's righteousness. Sanctions against Russia and increased diligence from Silicon Valley can only go so far. As the great sage Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

So that was my rant. It's not that scathing, but after an hour or so I realized it was, in fact, rather hotheaded and self-righteous. Not only that, but it was written in the same emotional frame of mind that causes people to share false stories without checking them. In an article I read a couple of days ago, a college professor who teaches media literacy said, "When you feel strong emotion — happiness, anger, pride, vindication — and that emotion pushes you to share a 'fact' with others, STOP." Now, I hadn't shared any false information--the Russian troll farms are all too real--but as the professor says later, it's a good idea to recognize strong emotions in yourself, and take them as a cue that you're not in the most reasonable frame of mind. He's right. My emotional state blinded me to the fact that I was being hotheaded and self-righteous just as I was warning others not to be.

Plus, I was offering glittering generalities. It's easy to say we should be less hot-headed, less gullible, and less "Us-vs-Them" partisan, but it's a lot harder to offer concrete steps to achieve those goals. So, what steps can we take? That's something I need to think about more; something we all need to think about more.

In terms of dealing with attempts to by Russian troll farms to weaken democracy, there are a few things we can do, I think. One is to recognize the problem and how serious it is, and to understand how this kind of Russian propaganda works. This video is an excellent summary, which defines terms like "bot" and "troll farm" that many people may be fuzzy about. It also has advice on how to recognize when you're dealing with one. But it's not easy. With many of the Russian-generated memes, the graphics are lurid and the grammar is bad. Often there are no definite articles like "a" and "the", apparently because those aren't used in Russian. But many memes generated by Americans also have lurid graphics and bad grammar. Maybe a better idea is to distrust any hyper-partisan page, ad, or meme with these features. If it's not the Russians, it's people who are more interested in appealing to your fear and outrage than in getting you to think critically. There's a place for outrage, and even a place for fear, but we shouldn't let people use either to manipulate us.

Another thing we can do is refrain from arguing online with people we don't know, especially people we have no mutual friends with. Those people may be sitting in a troll farm in Russia, getting paid to rattle our cage. Or they may not be people at all. There are computer programs sophisticated enough to make people think they're a real person. People have even fallen in love with bots on dating sites, thinking they were real people. I don't know about you, but I would hate to find that I had wasting an hour arguing with a computer program. Maybe I have already? In any case, the way to avoid that is not to argue with strangers on public pages, especially if they seem to be arguing just to argue. What's the point of arguing with people you'll never meet, anyway? The chance you'll convince them of anything are about the same whether they're in a warehouse in Russia, their mom's basement in Pasadena, or inside a computer, existing only as lines of code.

There are probably many other steps we can take, and I need to learn them, but this post is long enough. One thing I know we need to do is realize that the threat to democracy is real. Russian troll farms are real, and they're only going to get better at what they do. But they can only weaken democracy if we let them push us in directions we were already moving in.

It seems to me there are two things that are absolutely essential in a democracy. 1. Citizens have to be reasonable and informed enough for a government by the people to be viable. This means they can't be too gullible, too uninformed, or too blinded by in-group and confirmation biases. 2. Citizens with different points of view have to be able to coexist. And that means we have to compromise--not about everything, but about many things. Living in a democracy means not always getting your way. And maybe we shouldn't get our way, because we were wrong in the first place. None of us knows everything, or has it all figured out. I certainly don't, and I can be as hotheaded and self-righteous as anybody. But one thing I'm pretty sure about is this: if Americans keep thinking they can't be wrong, and that other Americans with different opinions are their enemies, then we'll tear our democracy apart without any help from Russian trolls.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Morning Thoughts on Freedom of Speech

I woke up this morning thinking about freedom of speech, and what it means. Yes, that is kinda weird. But it's a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately, because it seems to me that some folks on both sides of the political spectrum have become alarmingly hostile to freedom of speech and freedom of thought. For some on the left, liberalism now seems to be about policing what people say and think. That doesn't seem very liberal to me. While I think many hateful, racist, and sexist expressions are truly unacceptable, I also think these folks take things too far. This is also the group that is often in the news for shouting down, and occasionally violently disrupting, right wing speakers on campuses. I can't agree with that, either, for reasons I'll get to below.

Lest any conservatives read that paragraph and cheer, well, y'all ain't all innocent, either. Consider the people I ran into this weekend in front of the Colorado state capitol. I happened to see a small gathering of about 40 people as I walked by, so I stopped to hear what they were saying, as I always do if I have time. This was a mixed bag of right-wing groups. There was a group called Bikers Against Radical Islam, several people waving Trump banners, a few camo clad or cowboy-hat-wearing sagebrush militia types, some people from the south waving confederate flags, and even one African-American guy who apparently calls himself "The Black Rebel". Many of the people there were wearing body armor and helmets, and I imagine most of them were armed.

Anyway, one of the neo-confederate types got up and spoke, and he said that his freedom of speech is under attack. But here's the strange thing: almost in the same breath, he went on to say that there's no place in this country for socialists, or for people who disrespect the flag (presumably by sitting during the national anthem). A guy in front of me cheered. His jacket said, "Stomp my flag and I'll stomp your ass".

Clearly, these guys don't believe in freedom for all types of speech or expression. They don't believe socialists should have it, apparently, and they don't believe people who they see as disrespecting the flag should have it. (I can't resist pointing out that they were waving confederate flags, which seems fairly disrespectful of the American flag to me, and they were displaying American flags in ways that violate the flag code in all kinds of ways. I didn't point that out. I didn't have body armor on.)

As the speaker with the microphone attacked socialists and anthem-sitters, the Bikers Against Radical Islam cheered, too. Now, I don't know their exact thoughts, and I'm against radical, violent forms of Islam, too. (I don't like any form of fundamentalism.) But I've heard many people with similar beliefs (often in biker garb, for some reason) say that they think Islam--even moderate Islam--shouldn't get First Amendment protection, because "Islam is an ideology, not a religion". That makes no sense at all, of course, but the point is that if these people believe something like that, then they don't believe in free speech or thought for Muslims, either. Polls also show that many people don't believe in First Amendment protections for atheists, though nobody at this gathering mentioned them.

So these folks don't believe in freedom of speech for others. But that doesn't necessarily mean that their freedom of speech isn't under attack. Is it under attack? I don't want to dismiss the idea without giving it a fair hearing, even if I dislike this guy's worldview. One thing is clear. His First Amendment rights are intact. After all, he made his speech into a microphone on the steps of the state capitol, and the state troopers nearby were keeping the peace, not arresting him.

But the First Amendment only protects you from being punished by the government for what you say. It doesn't protect you from social consequences. It doesn't keep people from disagreeing with you---freedom of speech is a double-edged sword that way. It also doesn't keep people from shunning or ridiculing you.

However. What I woke up realizing this morning is that freedom of speech and the First Amendment aren't identical things. If fear of social consequences keeps you from speaking your mind, even if the First Amendment doesn't, do you really have freedom of speech? I'm not sure you do. The First Amendment (probably) won't protect you from losing your job for what you say. But if you do lose your job, you don't really have freedom of speech, even if you have First Amendment protection from the government. And sometimes that's OK, because freedom of speech isn't an absolute right. I have no problem with somebody who shows up on the news marching with a swastika losing their job. But at the same time, society should be wary of shutting down free speech through social or financial pressure, because the free exchange of ideas is important.

But why is it important? Some on the right and left may be asking that right now, and it's a fair question. There are a few commonly-cited reasons, but I only want to mention a couple. First is the "marketplace of ideas" argument. The classic early expression of this idea is by Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment."

Soaring words, but I don't fully agree with them. I think the marketplace of ideas is important, but for a different reason. Holmes seemed to believe that popular acceptance of an idea is a good test for truth. I don't think it is--lots of terrible ideas are extremely popular. While it seems like hubris for me to question the great Holmes, I think the reason the marketplace of ideas is important is that without it, good ideas will never see the light of day in the first place (whether they win popular acceptance or not). If Galileo had been thrown in a dungeon and his books burned, the truth about the solar system would not have emerged, perhaps for decades. And he was speaking the truth, even if the masses had never accepted it. Even if--God forbid-- today's flat earthers come to dominate popular thought, Galileo was right.

So, the free exchange of ideas is important, even if those ideas don't win popular acceptance. But what about truly awful, hateful ideas? Does hate speech deserve a place in the marketplace of ideas? If bad ideas often gain popular acceptance, isn't that an argument against having ideas like Nazism in the marketplace at all? Should the emerging strands of American Nazism we saw in Charlottesville see the light of day at all? Why not just shut that down, and declare that it's unacceptable in a decent society; that such a poisonous product has no place in the marketplace of ideas? Should it even be cast outside of the protection of the First Amendment, and be declared illegal, as it has been in many other countries?

Maybe. But that makes me nervous, too. For one thing, who gets to say what counts as hate speech? What if we declared hate speech illegal, and then in a few years radical theocratic Christians gained enough political power to start prosecuting people who criticized them, using hate speech laws? Can you imagine that happening? I can. What truly counts as hate is not an easy thing to pin down, and though this may get me in trouble with other liberals, I don't think everything that gets called hate speech really is. Let's go back to that neo-confederate dude speaking on the state capitol steps. He was holding a shield with a confederate flag on it, and he was saying it's a symbol of history, not hate. Then he pointed to the Black Rebel in the audience, and said, "He's here with us. He knows we don't hate him."

And I don't think they do hate him; at least not most of them. I do think the confederate flag is an ugly symbol of a hideous time, and not something to be celebrated. I think waving it is incredibly insensitive, but I think somebody could actually wave it while not hating African-Americans. Does the guy speaking actually have hate in his heart? I don't know. Some people that wave that flag do. I imagine some people in that audience actually do hate blacks (and Muslims, and atheists, and socialists, etc.) and some don't. I didn't see any obvious white supremacists there. I've learned to recognize white supremacist symbols, and I see them fairly regularly--usually as tattoos on ex-convicts--but I didn't spot any there. Maybe I just missed them.

In any case, I think some people truly think that flag is a harmless expression of heritage. I disagree that it's harmless, but I do believe some people who wave it don't actually hate African-Americans. And some wave it who do. It's an ugly symbol, either way, but should it be suppressed? What about when it clearly is a symbol of hate--when it's carried by someone with an SS tattoo on their neck, for example? Should it be illegal then?

Even if it really is hate, and even if it has no place in the marketplace of ideas, there is another argument that it shouldn't be made illegal. That's the "safety valve" idea of freedom of speech. The idea here is that a society needs to give even hateful ideas an expression, so that people don't go underground with them, where they will fester and bubble up and surprise us later.

Recent history shows how this can happen. When you try to suppress an idea, you don't kill it. You'll likely just make the person who holds it believe it even more strongly, and start thinking of themselves as an oppressed martyr. The suppressed idea then gets whispered in living rooms (I've been stuck in those living rooms) and circulated in underground magazines and websites. Then, people who think those ideas have disappeared are in for a very unpleasant surprise when they return later.

Whether an idea is truly hateful, or simply conservative and therefore distasteful to liberals, something I think liberals need to consider more is that any attempt to control people usually results in a backlash. Conservatives especially hate being told what to do, and they extra-especially hate being told what to do by liberals. If we liberals think we can tell them what they're allowed to say and think, and they'll say, "Oh, OK", we're delusional. We may succeed in shushing them for a while, but they will resent it, and they will start looking for revenge. The election of Trump can be seen in many ways, but one thing it clearly was is an act of rebellion against "bossy liberal elitists". It was a backlash, and liberals (including me) should have seen it coming.

Don't get me wrong. And if you're a liberal, I'm not saying liberals are responsible for people voting for Trump. We aren't the ones who checked that box on the ballot. But we have to learn that trying to control the way people think and speak usually causes a backlash, and that can contribute to things we really, really don't want happening. Like having a nightmare like Donald Trump as president.

You may say that people shouldn't lash back like that. Maybe they shouldn't, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that they do. We can't control how they react. All we can do is try to engage with them in a way that doesn't make things worse.

And both liberals and conservatives need to be careful that they don't forget the value of freedom of speech and thought. They--or rather, we, as Americans--need to remember that freedom of speech isn't just freedom for people you agree with. As Noam Chomsky once said, "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." We need to remember that freedom of speech is not identical with the First Amendment. It can be suppressed without touching the First Amendment. Does that mean all speech should be socially acceptable? Of course not. But it does mean the free exchange of ideas is a vital part of an open, healthy, democratic society, and whether we are liberals, conservatives, or moderates, we forget that at our peril.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

White Privilege and the Weight of History

I love Billie Holiday, but I don't enjoy the song "Strange Fruit". It's the most powerful song I've ever heard, and I think every American should hear it at least once, but to be honest, I turn it off when it comes on. It's just too sad. I made myself listen to it tonight, though. It's on my mind because of a comment I saw on Facebook that I can't stop thinking about. The man who made it was white, and he said this:
We could be lynched today for having been born "privileged" never mind the facts of the hard work and sachrifices [sic] made by our loved ones to put us where we are today. 
Now, despite the title of this post, I don't use the term "white privilege" much, though I think it's a real thing. I lean liberal, but I shy away from recently-popular political terms like that. Saying them makes me feel like I'm jumping on a bandwagon and not thinking for myself. I also figure conservatives will stop listening to me as soon as I say them, and I want them to keep listening. I don't know if that makes sense or not. But I looked at that comment and thought, "If that's not white privilege, I don't know what is."

I hope it's mere ignorance that allows someone to say a thing like that. Surely this man had a faulty education, and he's never seen a photo of a lynching, even though many were taken. He must not realize that not so long ago--within the lifetime of people still living--white people could hang, dismember, and burn black people, with no consequences. He must not know that after many lynchings, those white people were so sure they wouldn't be punished that they would pose for a big group picture next to the broken body, their faces in full view. Only a person who doesn't feel the generational weight of a word like "lynched" could use it so lightly.

The worst such picture I've ever seen is of a black teenager who was castrated, dismembered, and burned to death near Waco, Texas while 10,000 people watched. They made a postcard of it, as was common at the time. One participant in the lynching sent a copy to his father, and wrote:
This is the Barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe
The victim's name was Jesse Washington. I think every white American should force themselves to look at that postcard. I imagine most black Americans have already seen it.

As for that white man who thinks he might meet such a fate because he was born privileged, I agree with him. Not that he's at risk of being lynched, of course--that's outrageous, and truly offensive. I just agree that he was was born privileged. He was born to parents and grandparents who would never have met Jesse Washington's fate, because of the color of their skin. He may even owe his existence to that fact--how many babies were never born because their potential forebears were lynched? I also don't doubt that his parents and grandparents worked hard. But I know they never had to take an impossible-to-pass test before they could vote. I know they never bought a Negro Motorist's Green Book so they could take a trip and still eat in restaurants, stay in motels, and use restrooms. They never had to sit in the back of a bus, be called "boy" into their old age, or wait at a counter until all the white people had been served. They never earned lower wages for their hard work because of the color of their skin. They never listened to Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit", and thought, "That could be me."

My parents and grandparents never had to face those things, either. Yes, they worked hard too, and that's one reason I'm privileged. Another reason is that they were white, and so am I. Yes, things are better than they used to be. But I've never once been pulled over by the police and wondered if I would live through it. Yes, I think most cops are good, but I've never looked in the rear-view mirror and thought, "Is this one of the bad ones? One who hates me before he even knows my name?" If I were black--right now in 2017--I would know what that's like. I think that's something white people need to realize. Whether they agree with black athletes kneeling for the national anthem or not, they need to realize that they do so knowing what it's like to worry about running into that bad cop. They do so knowing what the word "lynched" really means. They feel the true weight of that word.

And I don't--not the way they do. Yet here I sit pounding angrily on a keyboard, even though none of this has ever affected me personally. And that's another kind of privilege. I'm sitting here livid about things I was never subjected to; things my parents and grandparents were never subjected to. I wonder how upset I would be if I were black, and saw that white man's breezy comment about a horror he can't begin to understand? I know I wouldn't handle it with the grace most African-Americans show in those circumstances. Maybe that's because I haven't had a lifetime of practice dealing with things like that. Like they have.