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4/30/16

The pseudoscience of liberal discourse gaming

The prospect of influencing and even manipulating public opinion has attracted some fairly rigorous and sophisticated intellectual inquiry for thousands upon thousands of years. You can find early traces in works as old as the Bhagavad-gita (in asides about how it is a "restless man's mind" that can be "strongly shaken") that extend in a fairly straight line towards modern scientific research (empirical experiments on how stress impacts amenability to persuasion, for example). En route, we've developed a fairly extensive body of knowledge about what works and what doesn't spread out over multiple fields: marketing, public relations, political science, psychology, and so on.

As in most fields of empirical knowledge, it turns out that many of our assumptions and historical ideas about public opinion are factually incorrect. To pick a trivial example, we now know that ancient rationalistic conceptions of humans as the "reasoning animal" are plainly false, and that people are afflicted with all kinds of powerful and irrational cognitive biases. These biases are often extraordinarily subtle, counterintuitive, and can't be recognized through sheer conjecture; usually, they can only be teased out through elaborate, carefully controlled experiments. If you study the literature, you'll understand how this works; if you don't, you won't understand it, and you're likely to conclude that people are rational in ways they are not.

So it's immensely frustrating to see armchair liberal discourse gaming, where we get sage advice grounded in theories of public opinion that just aren't true, and that no one in the field thinks is true. For instance, Jill Filopovic writes:
I think we've seen evidence that shutting Trump down fires up the GOP base & potentilly makes white voters sympathetic to him.
This is an empirical claim. What evidence? Think of how you would even substantiate this:
  • One thing you could do is just ask voters directly how "getting shut down" affects their attitudes towards Trump, and look for some unique reaction among white voters. But self-reporting on this kind of question is terribly unreliable methodology, and in any case no such polling has (as far as I know) actually been done.
  • More likely, Filopovic is relying on the related and enormously popular pundit methodology of relying on a personal sampling of anecdotal evidence culled from the self-reporting of various tweets and talking heads. This places all kinds of similar problems: while I'm sure TrumpTrainDad88 definitely said "This makes me want to support Trump even more!" there's no reason to conclude that his outrage is either reliable or representative.
  • Another thing you could do is look for any appreciable change in general favorability polling before and after such an incident. This has all kinds of serious problems too, however, since such changes are overdetermined and express all kinds of different factors - but hilariously, even if we set aside this problem, the polls actually falsify Filipovic's claim. For instance, prior to the Arizona protests, Trump's favorability was at 43% among white voters; that number dropped to 39% after the protest.
The fact is, if you look at the data on this kind of thing, what you find is people respond unreliably and inconsistently to disruptive protests. When Filipovic says "I think we've seen evidence" on this, I can't imagine that she's actually looked for evidence in any kind of rigorous or compelling way. (She's shown significant difficulty in understanding even basic polling in the past). What's more likely here is that she has an intuition about how the discourse works, largely informed by her conflict-aversion and her reflexive preference for polite rationalistic discourse, and that she will now backfill all kinds of anecdotal and statistically unsound "evidence" to substantiate this.

When liberals call for "an exchange of ideas on the left about the most effective ways to counter" opposition messaging, this is fine - but that exchange of ideas should be at least minimally informed by our understanding of public opinion and how it actually works. The notion that these ideas can be grounded in nothing more than ideology and personal preference makes such calls for dialogue little different than the Creationist calling for "an exchange of ideas" about the origin of species.

4/29/16

Kevin Drum's scathing critique of Bernie Sanders, Kevin Drum

I want to step back a bit and explain the big-picture reason that I never warmed up to Bernie Sanders...I think he's basically running a con, and one with the potential to cause distinct damage to the progressive cause...
Bernie's explanation for everything he wants to do—his theory of change, or theory of governing, take your pick—is that we need a revolution in this country...[but] the revolution that Bernie called for didn't show up. In fact, it's worse than that: we were never going to get a revolution, and Bernie knew it all along. - Kevin Drum
So as far as I can tell, Drum opposed Sanders because...he uses the same revolutionary rhetoric that everyone else does? Clinton's campaign surrogates are quite openly "ready for the revolution". Obama's 2008 candidacy routinely relied on all kinds of revolutionary rhetoric, from his promises to "fundamentally transform the United States of America" to the Soviet agitprop aesthetic of his famous Hope poster; as Sara Robinson wrote at the time:
Barack Obama is walking away with the moment because he talks of "hope" -- which...is the very first thing any would-be revolutionary needs. And then he talks of "change," which many of his followers are clearly hearing as a soft word for "revolution."
Indeed, Clinton attacked Obama for this rhetoric at the time, just as she and her surrogates are attacking Sanders for it now. Listen to Drum today, and you hear the direct echo of Clinton's 2008 critique:
...if you want to make a difference in this country, you need to be prepared for a very long, very frustrating slog...In place of this, he promises his followers we can get everything we want via a revolution that's never going to happen. And when that revolution inevitably fails...do they give up? I don't know, but my fear is that some of them will...
I recall reading some compelling criticism of this kind of "false hope" rhetoric at the time:
...the most jarring statement I heard...was Hillary Clinton's admonition that "we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered." ...the way she put it was horribly off-putting...I'll bet that "false hope" line stuck in a lot of craws. After all, I'm pretty sympathetic toward her, and it stuck in mine.
That was 2008's Kevin Drum, who seemed fine with revolutionary rhetoric when it was coming from Obama. In fact, he wanted more of it:
Obama obviously has the talent to move people, and at some point he's going to have to decide whether he's willing to use that talent to start persuading the American public of the value of liberal policies, not merely the value of coming together and "making change." The latter might get him elected, but it won't get him elected with a tailwind of public opinion actively in favor of implementing a liberal agenda... 
"Change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying"? ...Frankly, I'd be pleased to see a hint of this now and again in Obama's campaign, but I just haven't...I don't really see him tapping into popular anger at all. There's a part of me that wishes he'd dip a toe in those waters occasionally, but I haven't seen it yet.
Relying on "a tailwind of public opinion actively in favor of implementing a liberal agenda" despite entrenched right-wing opposition sounds a hell of a lot like what Sanders is calling for, but I guess Drum thinks he's actually calling for something more analagous to a straight-up proletarian revolution? If only.

4/29/16

It don't make no difference

A conspicuous wave of messaging over the past few weeks has somberly reminded Sanders voters of history's greatest monster, Ralph Nader, and the evils of not voting for the lesser-evil. Historically, this criticism has just relied on the cynical, brick-dumb logic that singles out Nader as the cause of a massively overdetermined outcome; but we live in the Age of Wokeness, which means that the old arguments need a new coat of paint.

Thus we get the ridiculous spectacle of bougie Cosmo dilettante Jill Filipovic sagely lecturing people with "lucky lives" about their democratic responsiblities - just eight days after she skipped out on voting for Hillary for a trip to Kenya.

What's hilarious here is that Filipovic's substantive position is relatively defensible: a wide spectrum of liberal-left voices, from centrists at one end to radicals like Noam Chomsky at the other, have always maintained that the (sometimes narrow) differences between candidates can have major consequences. But because she's an elite centrist liberal, Filipovic can't resist the impulse to repackage this point with an addition claim about privilege that's demonstrably untrue. She suggests that people who are less privileged are more likely to appreciate the differences between the candidates, but in fact, voting trends suggest the exact opposite. The poor, for example, are the only income demographic with a majority preference: they don't bother voting.

And anyone with any basic connection to the poor knows exactly why this is: as @kraydiobelly notes in the same thread, "'it don't make no difference' is like the default political position of poor Americans of all stripes." They have good reason to think this. For instance, the last Clinton Administration was long credited with reducing poverty, but today it has become clear that Bill Clinton's welfare law (which Hillary actively supported) only accomplished this by making extreme poverty much, much worse. This is perhaps one of many reasons why Nader had a stronger 2000 performance among voters making less than $15,000 a year than he had with any other income demographic:


So there's a basic detachment from reality when we get articles like this one from Michael Kang, rueing his vote for Nader and suggesting that refusing to vote for the Democrat is a movement of privilege:
I’m sure as I write this some opportunistic free market capitalist is already having a factory in China print up “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bernie” bumper stickers.
Would you be shocked to learn that Kang, like Filipovic, has a prestige media career? Our content providers for the liberal elite have the privilege of not needing to worry too much that their jobs could get outsourced to China (at least not yet). Kang may have cast his vote as a "symbolic" gesture so that he could feel "empowered and unapologetically righteous" - this is because he wasn't one of the Teamsters who supported Nader in "opposition to trade policies of the Clinton administration, in particular NAFTA and the recent House vote conferring normal trade status upon China." Kang may think that people who refuse to back Clinton "are voting solely with their hearts" - and there's a good explanation for that, too:


Wealthy people aren't just the ones who are most likely to vote - they are, by far, the ones who are most likely to specifically vote for Clinton. Ordinarily, we'd be skeptical of people with this kind of privilege condescending to the oppressed that they "are voting solely with their hearts." But media conversations about privilege, of course, are completely dominated by the well-off - so it's easy to see why the poor look at liberal privilege policing and conclude that it don't make no difference, either.

4/27/16

The future of bourgeois press and the end of the media elite

Today, the bourgeois press still relies on personal brands as a marketing strategy. We have star columnists and journalists with distinct voices and so on, and publications pay them large salaries and give enormously outsized personal platforms, and readers have particular favorites who they follow from outlet to outlet. To get in these positions, you have to have a personality and political orientation that's compatible with capitalist marketing imperatives.

What this means in practice is that we have a whole industry that attracts some of the worst people in the world, that fetishizes their opinions and intellect, and that puts them in our face constantly. This, for all kinds of historical reasons, is the particularly obnoxious way that capitalism advances its ideology.

There are a lot of significant reasons to suspect that this state of affairs isn't going to last. In most industries, marketing has moved over time from personal to impersonal brands. This is particularly true in industries where the worker is significantly alienated from his product (through divisions of labor, for example) and where production is automated - both increasingly prominent trends in the media. Moreover, the same market pressures that depress wages and cultivate precarity also increasingly disincline outlets from investing too much in individual workers.

It seems to me that in the long run, we're quite likely to see a media industry dominated by impersonal corporate brands instead of personal ones, with content produced from rote-reporting and press conference stenography, corporate marketing department press releases, Medium / Tumblr style IMHOs from randoms, lazy Twitchy-style second-hand aggregation, and (in a final insult) completely automated composition from increasingly clever AI. We are well on this road already.

This is going to be a much more cost-effective way for capitalism to disseminate its ideology, and as it becomes inreasingly microtargeted, narrowcasted and prolific, it's probably going to be significantly more persuasive. This will be a dystopia of a different sort, but one major consolation is that our media elite is going to wither away. I am, however perversely, looking forward to it.

4/26/16

The Sanders youth vote and the ratchet effect

Despite the visible and enthusiastic support from the left Bernie Sanders has received throughout his campaign, he has also faced a familiar genre of left-flank criticism. The soft critique maintains that the Sanders campaign is at best irrelevant, a symptom of a much deeper left movement that would exist with or without him. The hard critique maintains that his campaign is actually politically counterproductive for the left, since Sanders functions as a "sheepdog" who will ultimately channel leftist energy towards Clinton's campaign.

I think there's some truth to both of these positions, but surely neither holds for every voter. If we're assessing his net impact on American politics, the question is whether those considerations outweigh any positive contributions he's made to building the left; we have to do a cost-benefit analysis, rather than simply pointing at costs and concluding that they're dispositive. And some of those benefits, the Washington Post suggests, are extraordinary:
"...He's moving a generation to the left," Della Volpe said of the senator from Vermont. "Whether or not he's winning or losing, it's really that he's impacting the way in which a generation — the largest generation in the history of America — thinks about politics."
[...]
Della Volpe cautions that it's impossible to predict how millennials' views will shift in the future, but people change parties only rarely after about age 30, researchers have found.
That latter point is crucial, because one's early experiences don't just ratchet in a party preference - they ratchet in a whole way of thinking about and relating to politics. Right now, what young people all around America are learning is that social democratic policies are not just preferable, but plausible, and in fact almost within reach; that "socialism" is not a word they need to run away from; that liberal Democrats are not only unreliable allies, but often a major obstacle to their aspirations; and that left political campaigns are uphill battles for ideals that terrible people will dismiss as radical and unrealistic. A substantial body of evidence suggests that they will carry these lessons with them for the rest of their lives.

Compare that to the alternative: if Sanders had not run, there are plenty of young people who would have learned the exact opposite lessons. We have some significant data on this. As of October 16 of last year, here are who Sanders voters were calling their second choice:


These numbers would likely be somewhat different drilled down to voters under 30, but other indicators suggest that faction of young voters who might have considered another candidate is substantial. For example, YouGov / Economist suggests that Sanders got a 10-point bump among young voters between October 12 (36%) and November 9 (46%). That just happens to span the month when Joe Biden dropped out of the race; Biden, incidentally, was winning 12% of the Millennial vote.

Instead of supporting any of these relatively centrist candidates, advocating their neoliberal policies, and rationalizing their establishmentarian affiliation, these young Sanders supporters have spent their formative first year in politics arguing against such voters. This possibility was always latent in their politics, but it needed the right candidate to catalyze it, to give young people a viable alternative that they could rally around. There is no reason to believe this would have happened without Sanders, and every reason to believe that this impact on American politics will resonate for generations to come.

4/24/16

Clinton's climate science denial

Liberals are enjoying a bit of shade Hillary Clinton threw at the Koch Brothers this afternoon, dismissing them as "people who deny climate science". Unfortunately, as climate centrists, their position is not meaningfully distinct from libertarian denial. A quick look at just two graphs from the US Environmental Protection Agency tells the story:


Here are the EPA's projections for the future of CO2 concentrations in four different scenarios. Conveniently, the red line (RCP 2.6) shows what happens if global climate emissions peak during Hillary Clinton's first term. By the way, nothing like this is on the table in Clinton's agenda. Her stated goal is merely to "reduce greenhouse gas emissions [in the US] by up to 30 percent in 2025 relative to 2005 levels and put the country on a path to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050."
So what happens if emissions don't peak by 2020? The science is straightforward on that, too:


Again: the bottom line, RCP 2.6, shows what happens if emissions peak during Clinton's first term. The others show what happens if they don't. Every alternative has us at or near a 2 degree Celcius rise in temperature in the next 84 years.

Two degrees, remember, is the infamous tipping point in climate science where everything starts really going to hell. Two degrees is where warming processes start triggering other warming processes and the cycle becomes irreversible. Two degrees is where significant coastal areas (particularly in east Asia) start drowning beneath rising tides. Two degrees is where food production in populous nations like India and China begins to drop precipitously. Two degrees, as Gwynne Dyer writes, is where the geopolitical situation becomes so unstable that there is "a probability of wars, including even nuclear wars...Once that happens, all hope of international cooperation to curb emissions and stop global warming goes out the window."

Climate centrists may smugly claim the scientific high ground over radicals like the Kochs, but if they aren't even trying to peak global emissions within the next four years, they haven't actually accepted the science.

4/24/16

Temporarily embarrassed executive editors

The New York Times plans to lay off a few hundred staffers this year, according to a report in the New York Post. And the major reason for the delay? Ownership and management are negotiating "a deal to provide reduced severance to those affected". On top of that, they are even moving staff from its Paris office to London, "where it can have better control of letting staff go, since French law makes it very difficult and expensive for companies to lay off workers".

This is the first of what will obviously be only a handful of token articles about the coverage. Compare that with the 1000+ news articles we saw in the month following the firing of Forbes Powerful Woman Jill Abramson from the NYT in 2014, and you get a pretty clear idea of where the media's priorities are and how much it actually cares about the problems of sexism and employment. Or you can compare the coverage of Abramson to media coverage, that very same week, of the thousands upon thousands of women who took to the streets to fight for a living wage. Those people, of course, only won any significant media coverage when another bougie white woman tried to take credit for their efforts.

The way that the media fetishizes the rich and powerful while ignoring the plight of poor and working class women is as predictable as it is disgraceful. Obviously the sponsors and stakeholders who fund corporate media - including corporate media's boutique "liberal" brands - don't care about the poor, and neither does the increasingly alienated petit bourgeois class of six figure managers and editors who play a primary role in setting and shaping coverage priorities. Nor, of course, do the growing ranks of independently wealthy / trust-fund dilettantes for whom media is little more than another novelty on an ever-growing CV.

Solidarity, or ambition?

That said, what I find particularly odious are the working-class-traitors in journalism who clearly just do not give a fuck about their comrades and colleagues. Obviously the media rank-and-file only have limited-to-nonexistent opportunities to cover and push for more coverage of the plight of working class women; the problem is largely structural, having to do with the hierachies and commercial incentives of industrial capitalist media, and no one should blame them for this. But what I've found in my conversations with so many liberal journalists, in reading their personal writing, and in observing their personal activism, is that many of them wouldn't even focus on the working class even if they had the opportunity.

Usually, liberals will deny this, and insist that their focus on the temporary inconveniences of rich women emerges from a broader concern about inequality. But read closely, and that focus is just as often tied with another concern: ambition. Watch how the former seamlessly shifts into the latter:
If even Abramson can’t get equal pay for equal work at the Times, what does that mean for the 22-year-old college graduate scrambling to climb from an unpaid internship to a real living as a reporter? The women out there who dream of ascending to the top of the Times masthead— is a dream all that will ever be?
So we move from the shared struggle with workers to make "a real living" to a struggle against the workers - to the "dream of ascending to the top", which means, of course, that someone will remain at the bottom. It is not the ethic of equality at the heart of feminism that animates this dream, but just the opposite - a resignation to inequality, albeit one of a different sort.

This is what I see in liberal journalists who call themselves feminists, but who only care about the problems of rich women: a toxic blend of apathy for their comrades and ambition for themselves. If America, as Steinbeck supposedly put it, is a land of "temporarily embarrassed millionaires", liberal journalism is an industry of temporarily embarrassed executive editors, would-be Jill Abramsons who are fine with laying off hundreds of women as long as they're the ones who get to do it.

4/23/16

Leftists have a good critique of Emmett Rensin's "smug" essay. Liberals? Not so much

Friedrich Nietzsche is the seminal philosopher of smugness, so I think that Emmett Rensin's The smug style of American liberalism would have done well to grapple with him; in many ways, their arguments are directly at odds.

Rensin insists that the smug belief in a "failure of half the country to know what's good for them" should be understood as "a psychological reaction to a profound shift in American political demography" - specifically, the shift of liberalism from "union halls and little magazines...into universities and major press, from the center of the country to its cities and elite enclaves". "The smug style arose" among the remaining liberal elites as an explanation for their abandonment. It is, that is to say, a political phenomenon that emerges from their rationalizations.

Nietzsche would argue that this gets it backwards. There are certainly smug liberals, but liberal smugness isn't really a significant or consequential force in politics - reactionaries just don't care what liberals actually think of them. What is significant, however, is the psychology of ressentiment among the oppressed. The conservative working class feels its powerlessness, feels its immiseration, and gets that elites are much better off; and for that reason, they are driven to rationalize and justify their opposition to their oppressors. The imputation of unearned entitlement and a superiority complex among elites is an inevitable expression of this.

The crucial thing to notice here is that the perception of smugness precedes any actual instances of smugness. If this is true, then no amount of diplomacy, outreach or sensitivity to the right-wing underclass will alleviate this particular problem; even if liberals are optimally gracious and understanding, the right will still invent reasons to read smugness into everything they do.

Nietzsche's law, and Jante's law

It seems clear to me that much of the criticism of Rensin's essay is coming from elites who feel indicted by the piece - as they should. But some of the more susbtantive criticism, I think, can be explained by the tension between these two theories of smugness. Nietzsche's argument does not require him to make claims about whether elite smugness is warranted - he simply treats it as a perception. Rensin, however, declares that the smug style's "case against its enemies" is "tenuous". This exposes him to the criticism that liberalism's case is often not tenuous - a point that Weird Twitter, of course, picked up on immediately.

That said, if we accept Nietzsche's conception of the problem, it seems that we have only two possible responses to the problem of smugness.

The first - Nietzsche's response - is to accept it as a fact of life, the inevitable expression of hierarchies that we will never be able to get rid of. If we insist that some people will always have more power than others, the disempowered will obviously always resent this, and will read smugness into any attempt the powerful make to justify themselves. Powerful people should not worry too much about this; haters gonna hate.

An alternative response, of course, would be to tear down socioeconomic hierarchies, empower the oppressed, and dethrone the elites. That would take away the superiority and inferiority complexes, the psychology of ressentiment, and the perceptions of smugness that all come as a package deal with hierarchy. This philosophical disposition has its own historical precedents, for example in the Law of Jante, which notably emerged in the markedly egalitarian societies of Scandinavia. Here, the left argues that you can't get rid of elite smugness by getting rid of the smugness - you have to get rid of the elites.

Liberalism's response

These divergent lines of thought have some obvious parallels in contemporary American politics. The left has clearly adopted the second position, which sees socioeconomic inequality as the primary (though not exclusive) driver of various forms of ressentiment. This is not a position that necessarily entails dismissing liberal positions as "tenuous", and neither does it have to ignore instances where liberals are indeed smug. Reactionaries, meanwhile, have clearly adopted Nietzsche's response, and concluded that hierarchy and smugness are here to stay, and even laudable.

What can liberals say to all of this? How can they escape Rensin's critique without embracing the hierarchies of Nietzsche and the right - or worse, accepting the radical egalitarianism of the left? Rensin writes,
This is not a call for civility. Manners are not enough. The smug style did not arise by accident, and it cannot be abolished with a little self-reproach.
Liberals clearly believe that manners are enough, that civility and privilege-checking and all kinds of careful diplomacy can win over the underclass. Instead of abolishing hierarchy, liberals hope to eradicate perceptions of smugness with an ethic of magnanimity from above and grateful submission from below. This of course is embarrassingly naive, and amounts in practice to a de facto defense of Nietzsche's position. Liberals may nominally and even intentionally oppose smugness, but in their defense of hierarchy they guarantee that it will persist.

4/22/16

Who got owned by Clinton's million dollar troll campaign?

Everyone's having a good laugh over Hillary Clinton's ridiculous million dollar troll campaign. Oddly enough, this seems to include a lot of people who got caught up in it. As far as I can tell, the idea seems to be that if you did not personally enlist in the War Against Bernie Bros, and maintained some degree of agnosticism or ambivalence over the whole affair, that you managed to escape complicity in Clinton's idiotic scheme.

This is absolutely ridiculous. It betrays a grossly uninformed and simplistic understanding of how this sort of influence operation works. The elite mobilization of provacateurs against the left has a long, well-documented and well-understood history, with predictable and deliberate objectives that the professionals who plan these campaigns are well aware of. A few of the more obvious ones:

  • SHIFT THE OVERTON WINDOW - The goal here is simply to promote "Bernie Bros are #problematic" into the spectrum of tolerable and respectable opinion. This is easy to do with centrists: just take an insane radical position that Sanders supporters are all white male crypto-Marxist racist sexist neo-Paultards, and then stand back while Ron Fournier types stroke their chins and conclude, "Maybe both sides have a point." A whole genre of centrists managed to avoid putting their feet in their mouths too badly here - but still went out of their way to hedge their comments with obligatory "of course, there has been some harassment" concessions that no one would bothered to make if we'd treated it like the non-issue it actually was. They got trolled.
  • PROVOKE OVER-REACTIONS - Perversely, a major goal in this sort of campaign is to goad immature, emotionally unstable or unusually reactionary opponents - the kind one finds in every campaign as a matter of statistical inevitability - into saying or doing something that will embarrass everyone else. Let that sink in: here, the goal was clearly to incite precisely the climate of racism, sexism, and general antagonism that Clintonites have been wringing their hands about for the past year. We know that they've done this before, and it's an obvious and utterly foreseeable outcome of this kind of strategy. Did you say dumb things about how Sanders supporters were somehow complicit in or responsible for DogBoner88 throwing around some bigoted slur? You got trolled.
  • FOMENT DISCORD AND DAMPEN ENTHUSIASM - Even when the targets of this sort of campaign understand what's going on, there are always going to be internal disagreements about how to handle it. This is fine as long as the debate stays comradely and proportional to the challenge; decent and intelligent people can disagree on how to handle situations this complex and fluid. But instead, what often happens is that the targets of this sort of campaign turn on each other, and displace onto allies reactive aggression that should be channelled towards the people who are causing the problem in the first place. This kind of internal argument fosters discord and becomes an energy sink, which of course is precisely as intended; and if you're blaming a comrade for a problem Clinton caused, you got trolled.
  • BLAME THE VICTIMS - A related but distinct outcome from the previous three is a pseudo-agnostic or conflict-averse tendency to blame the targets of this sort of campaign for defending themselves. Even people within the targeted movement will do this on occasion, but it's more common among above-the-fray type third parties who think the whole controversy will go away if the victims unilaterally stand down. Of course, when you're running a million dollar troll campaign, flamewars are going to happen whether or not any particular people get involved; and when targets are getting smeared as bigots and partisans, they have every right and reason to defend themselves and their movement. So yes, if you were making some variation on the mealy-mouthed "these Bernie Bro articles are stupid but their complaints about them are just obnoxious" or whatever, great work: you got trolled.
Honestly, anyone who came into this primary with even a trivial amount of skepticism, a basic familiarity with how the Clintons campaign, and any kind of dim intuition about how modern online marketing / astroturfing works should have been able to recognize the million dollar troll campaign pretty quickly. It is absolutely criminal that journalists, who are supposed to be far more familiar with all of this, didn't blow the lid off of it themselves, and mostly just waited for Correct The Record itself to admit what was going on. And if you got what was happening, the appropriate response every step of the way was to call Clinton out on it and not let any of it turn into an indictment of Sanders.

If you didn't get what was happening, and proceeded accordingly, that's fine - this doesn't make you a bad person. It just makes you a sucker who got caught up in one of the largest and most aggressive troll campaigns in history. That's exactly what happened if you got involved in any of the above outcomes, even if you were clever and savvy enough not to take the bait hook, line, and sinker.

4/21/16

Of course the "Bernie Bro" smear was a PR campaign

Clinton Super PAC Correct the Record (CtR) admitted on Wednesday what has long been perfectly obvious to anyone paying attention: controversy over so-called "Bernie Bros" has been long driven by a coordinated and massively funded PR campaign:
The [Barrier Breakers] task force currently combats online political harassment, having already addressed more than 5,000 individuals who have personally attacked Secretary Clinton on Twitter... Lessons learned from online engagement with “Bernie Bros” during the Democratic Primary will be applied to the rest of the primary season and general election.
There's a lot of subtext in the press release that's easy to miss. For example, CtR notes that the task force
provide[s] a presence and space online where Clinton supporters can organize and engage with one another and are able to obtain graphics, videos, gifs, and messaging to use in their own social spaces...[and will share] their efforts and content with other groups.
This may seem relatively benign at first glance - but it takes on a whole new meaning when we consider a specific argument CtR made in May:
...campaign finance experts...noted that super PACs...cannot be coordinated with a candidate or political party...But Correct the Record believes it can avoid the coordination ban by relying on a 2006 Federal Election Commission regulation that declared that content posted online for free, such as blogs, is off limits from regulation...allowing independent groups to consult with candidates about the content they post on their sites.
It's obvious what's going on here. The FEC imposes all kinds of funding and disclosure rules on campaign communication operations. But there's a (dubiously) legal way to get around this: just let one of your super PACs "provide" staffing and resources in a "space online", and then tell them what to do. CtR has explicitly claimed its right to do this, and now it has created the opportunity for Clinton's campaign to do this. Why would they not be involved?

Who else is involved? CtR hints at this, too:
The task force staff’s backgrounds... include former reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers, Ready for Hillary alumni, and Hillary super fans who have led groups similar to those with which the task force will organize.
Of course, none of these people have ever disclosed their involvement in this effort (or the "similar" ones), none of them will unless they are forced to, and none of them will be held accountable for it. By the way, those "other groups" that CtR shares content with? Journalists.

One group who they do not admit is involved - but who almost certainly is involved, given the type of work being done and the vast sums of money going around - is PR firms. And on that note, I'll just remind everyone of this anecdote, which (to my ear, as someone who has worked in the field), sounds even more plausible now than it did before:
I am officially a former "digital media specialist" (a nice way to say "paid Internet troll") previously employed by Hillary Clinton's campaign (through a PR firm). I'm posting here today as a confession of sorts because I can no longer continue to participate in something that has become morally-indigestible for me. 
Just to give you an idea, here are some of the guidelines for our posting in October: 
1) Sexism. This was the biggest one we were supposed to push. We had to smear Bernie as misogynistic and out-of-touch with modern sensibilities. He was to be characterized as "an old white male relic that believed women enjoyed being gang raped". Anyone who tried to object to this characterization would be repeatedly slammed as sexist until they went away or people lost interest. 
2) Racism. We were instructed to hammer home how Bernie supporters were all privileged white students that had no idea how the world worked. We had to tout Hillary's great record with "the blacks" (yes, that's the actual way it was phrased), and generally use racial identity politics to attack Sanders and bolster Hillary as the only unifying figure.
3) Electability. All of those posts about how Sanders can never win and Hillary is inevitable? Some of those were us, done deliberately in an attempt to demoralize Bernie supporters and convince them to stop campaigning for him. The problem is that this was an outright fabrication and not an accurate assessment of the current political situation. But the truth didn't matter - we were trying to create a new truth, not to spread the existing truth. 
4) Dirty tactics. This is where things got really bad. We were instructed to create narratives of Clinton supporters as being victimized by Sanders supporters, even if they were entirely fabricated...These kind of posts are manufactured to divide and demoralize Sanders supporters, and are entirely artificial in nature. (The same thing happened in 2008, but it wasn't as noticeable before social media and public attention focused on popular forums like Reddit).
The whole thing is worth a read.