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“Not Serving Republicans’ Political Interests”: Facebook, The IRS, And The GOP’s Bullshit Feedback Loop

It is considered a historical certainty on the right that during President Obama’s first term, the IRS pursued a political vendetta against conservative advocacy groups seeking non-profit status. It is even common to hear Republicans imply that politically motivated targeting of Tea Party groups may have cost Mitt Romney the 2012 presidential election.

In reality, the IRS “scandal” was the unhappy byproduct of an agency being tasked with determining the validity of claims to non-profit status, but lacking the proper resources to do it or clear guidance on how. The fact that new Tea Party groups, many with dubious claim to non-profit status, had flooded the IRS with applications compounded the difficulty. The agency thus used watchwords like “tea party” and “progressive” to, in its words, triage the workload.

Mythmaking summons more outrage, sharpens a sense of victimization, and thus creates a larger appetite for right-wing electioneering groups and more conspiracy theories.

For the purposes of ginning up voters, that story is much less useful than one in which a liberal agency leader masterminded a sabotage campaign against patriotic conservatives trying to rescue the country from Obama. And so the IRS scandal was born.

Flash forward to this week, when John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, launched an inquiry into Facebook’s “trending topics” after an anonymous, conservative former Facebook worker told Gawker Media that the social media giant empowered reviewers to suppress conservative news and blacklist conservative news sources on the basis of naked political bias. The GOP’s intense interest in imposing content neutrality on a private company has inspired comparisons to the defunct “fairness doctrine” that used to regulate public-affairs content on U.S. airwaves. Republican beneficiaries of conservative talk radio turned the fairness doctrine into a free-speech bogeyman, but they take a much kinder view of the concept if it can be used to reduce alleged liberal bias online.

At a glance, the IRS and Facebook “scandals” bear little resemblance to one anotherbut the imperative both organizations face to sort truth from fiction creates a key similarity. Facebook has denied the core allegation fairly strongly. But it is easy to imagine how a conservative Facebooker might see his coworkers manipulating Facebook trending topics, and walk away convinced of a conspiracy exactly like the one the right imagines unfolded at the IRS.

Much like the IRS, inundated with non-profit status applications from groups that by all appearances were created for electioneering purposes, Facebook is a vast dumping ground for viral political content, much of which is garbage, some of which is bigoted, and some of which carries information that is outright false. It would be irresponsible of Facebook to facilitate the spread of birther nonsense or September 11 conspiracy theories by letting an algorithm pull such stories into trending topics without override power.

Thus, like the IRS, Facebook needs to triage. And here the differences between mainstream and liberal political content on the one hand, and conservative content on the other, become critical. Facebook reviewers tasked with “disregard[ing] junk … hoaxes or subjects with insufficient sources” are going to ensnare more climate-change denialism, more birther stories, more racist Breitbart agitprop than anything comparably dubious that comes out of the liberal internet. And those dubious stories will come not just from fringe sites or content farms, but from prestige outlets of the online right. Presumably liberal hoaxes and inaccurate liberal news are also bumped from trending topics (would Facebook let a celebrity’s anti-vaccine story linger there for long?)—yet among the presumably liberal ranks of Facebook workers, this is probably seen not as suppression, but as obligatory empiricism and social responsibility.

Much of this is admittedly conjecture. But acknowledging the reality of what Facebook grapples with doesn’t serve Republicans’ political interests. If they really wanted to get to the bottom of the Facebook controversy, they would have to implicitly acknowledge that climate-change denial is crankery and Glenn Beck is a charlatan, and sacrifice the political upside: incensing conservatives by alleging a scandal. Mythmaking around both the IRS and Facebook flaps summons more outrage, sharpens a sense of victimization, and thus creates a larger appetite for right-wing electioneering groups and conspiracy theories. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of bullshit.

The differences between the IRS and Facebook are numerous, of course. The IRS is obligated to use a neutral basis for sniffing out tax cheats, while Facebook is a lightly regulated Internet company that has the right to be a Democratic Party propaganda machine if it wants to. As a matter of principle, Facebook shouldn’t claim any of its features are fully automated, free from human meddling, if that simply isn’t true. But the fact that Facebook may have shaded the truth about trending topics doesn’t obligate anyone to give conspiracy-mongers with a rooting interest in stirring up right-wing anger the benefit of the doubt.

 

By: Brian Beutler, The New Republic, May 13, 2016

May 15, 2016 Posted by | Conspiracy Theories, Facebook, Internal Revenue Service, John Thune | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Cruz Sugar Daddy Funds A Fake Black GOP Group”: “Black Americans For A Better Future”, Has Just One Member

One of the GOP’s leading billionaire donors is also funding 96 percent of a super PAC named “Black Americans for a Better Future.”

Funny thing is, that donor, eccentric billionaire Robert Mercer, is white.

Two eagle-eyed watchdogs, Derek Willis of ProPublica and Dave Levinthal of Public Integrity, spotted the funding in a recent set of FEC filings, and The Intercept first reported the news. As the filings showed, Mercer has provided $400,000 of the group’s $417,250 donations so far.

Is it odd that an organization that says it’s made up of “Black Americans” is in fact bankrolled by a white billionaire? Sure, but that’s just the beginning.

The organization, “Black Americans for a Better Future,” essentially a one-person shop run by longtime GOP political operative Raynard Jackson.

Jackson is an unusual character. This is clear even on the surface: his slapdash website looks like a bad parody of 1998, and is littered with typos and grammatical mistakes. (“Is homosexual entitlements the new civil rights?” “I am also available for speaking engagements also.”)

But the weirdness goes deeper than that.

So far, the only expenditures for “Black Americans for a Better Future” are Jackson’s own salary of $155,000, travel costs (including, as The Intercept reporting, $5,000 at Morton’s Steakhouse in New York), and the $13,000 cost of its only activity thus far, a November 17 luncheon at the National Press Club.

Jackson himself is a profilic blogger who often takes fellow African Americans to task. His favorite target, unsurprisingly, is President Obama, of whom Jackson says, “He is light skinned, has no connection with the Black community, Ivy League educated, and seems very uncomfortable around Blacks who are not part of the bourgeoisie.”

Jackson is also not fond of Spike Lee, describing Lee’s newest film, Chi-Raq, as a “profanity laced, liberally biased, finger pointing diatribe that blames Republicans and Whites for all the murders taking place in Chicago.”

It’s an odd critique, given that Chi-Raq, a retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, is about black women demanding that black men stop killing each other (and withholding sex until they do), clearly placing responsibility, for the most part, on black men.

Maybe that’s because Jackson’s “review” is actually a pitch for one of his pet projects.

“It is extremely imperative that Republicans have an active surrogates program,” Jackson writes. “Black Republicans are constantly ridiculed in movies, TV sit-coms, and in pop culture. I have constantly expressed to party leaders the necessity of having a vibrant surrogates program where Black Republicans are seen on TV, heard on the radio, and interviewed in newspapers.”

Who does Jackson like? “Black men need more white women like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham,” Jackson wrote in a 2014 post. Even though they are conservative media personalities, they have done more to promote the well-being of black males than many of the very women who stridently complain about the lack of ‘eligible’ black men.”

Wait, what?

Jackson explains that Coulter’s anti-immigration stance helps black people, quoting her statement that “We owe black people something… We have a legacy of slavery. Immigrants haven’t even been in this country.” As for Ingraham, Jackson quotes her statement that Democrats “turn their heads away from the millions upon millions of black babies slaughtered in the womb over 10 years.… Is that racist?”

Jackson concludes, “We black men need more white women like Coulter and Ingraham, not back [sic] women who will give a pass to a failing black president.”

Of course, it’s not just black women; President Obama received 96 percent of the African American vote in 2012. But Jackson says they are deluded by Black leaders who refuse to criticize the president else they “jeopardize their invitations to the White House’s Christmas party.”

So, Jackson continued, “it’s ok to do specific things for the Black bourgeoisie—private invitations to the White House, rides on Air Force One, private movie screenings at the White House, but [Obama] can’t do things specifically to address the high unemployment rate in the Black community?”

(The black unemployment rate when Obama took office was 12.7 percent; as of June, 2015, it was 9.5 percent. Obama also started the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative in 2014 to focus on improving the lives of young African American men.)

In fact, the predominant theme in Jackson’s many online screeds seems to be his own resentment at being excluded from such elite circles. In a 2015 blog post, he complained that GOP chairman Rience Priebus stole his idea of giving out a “Black Republican Trailblazer Award” each February.

Most curiously, he complained in 2012 that “My Republican Party Has Abandoned Me” and rebuffed his efforts to attract more black voters. And yet, he wrote in 2012, “twice this year some of these same people have approached me about funding for some election year tricks that they (White Republicans) have conjured up and simply need a Black face to execute the plan. On these two separate occasions, these funders were willing to spend upwards of $20 million to have me organize a national campaign to identify Blacks who would be critical of President Obama.”

But wait, isn’t that exactly what Robert Mercer is paying him $400,000 to do in 2016?

The funding is not out of character for Mercer, part of a small cadre of .01-percenters who have bankrolled Cruz, upended the Republican Party, and mainstreamed formerly fringe ideas like abolishing the EPA and returning America to the gold standard. Last year, cluster of pro-Cruz super PACs called “Keep the Promise” raised over $38 million, chiefly from four extremely wealthy individuals: $11 million from Mercer, $15 million came from Farris and Dan Wilks, two brothers who made their fortune in the fracking industry, and $10 million from Toby Neugebauer, founder of the private equity firm Quantum Energy Partners.

Even that is just a small piece of the pie. Since 2012, Mercer has given $15 million in support of a wide range of ultra-conservative causes, candidates, and think tanks, including the tobacco-denier-turned-climate-change-denier Heartland institute ($4 million). That’s in addition to $10 million he invested in the far-right news site Breitbart.com back in 2011.

Moreover, as my colleague Mike Daly described last week, and Bloomberg Politics’ Zachary Mider reported in an excellent long-form profile, Mercer is an odd duck. A former computer programmer, Mercer is co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a fabulously successful hedge fund based on sophisticated computer modeling and algorithms. One of its funds earned an astonishing 39 percent average annual return from 1989 to 2006. (Mercer joined the firm in 1993 and became co-CEO in 2009.)

Renaissance has also been investigated by Congress and the IRS for using accounting tricks to dodge $6.8 billion in taxes. The IRS investigation is still underway. (Cruz, of course, has promised to abolish the IRS.)

In his spare time, Mercer has funded quack scientists and fringe political candidates (or both: one Mercer-funded candidate is also stockpiling a huge collection of human urine), played at the world series of poker, and installed a model train set in his mansion at a price tag of $2.7 million.

Now, it’s too much of a stretch to impute Jackson’s quixotic ideas, via Mercer, to Ted Cruz himself. True, both Cruz and Jackson are beneficiaries of the same idiosyncratic billionaire donor. True, they share a certain dislike of the currently sitting president. But Cruz is no more responsible for BAFBF than he is for Mercer’s $2 million dollar train set.

And Jackson gets around: his website features pictures of him with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, and even segregationist fanboy Senator Trent Lott.

But this is the world in which Cruz travels. The same donor who has underwritten nearly one-third of his “independent” super PAC is also funding a wingnut shill to be the black face of faceless white billionaires.

 

By: Jay Michaelson, The Daily Beast, February 26, 2016

February 28, 2016 Posted by | Black Americans for a Better Future, GOP Campaign Donors, Robert Mercer | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Donald Trump Is Not A Liar”: He’s Something Worse; A Bullshit Artist

Falsehoods fly out of Donald Trump’s mouth with such unstoppable frequency that it’s tempting to describe him as a liar. Among the recent Trumpian untruths is his claim to have seen a video showing “thousands and thousands” of Muslim Americans cheering 9/11 in Jersey City, New Jersey, an event there is no record of, video or otherwise. Trump has also retweeted and vigorously defended the claim that 81 percent of whites who are murdered are killed by blacks (the actual number for last year is 15 percent). And he has asserted, contrary to fact, that the federal government is sending refugees to states with “Republicans, not to the Democrats.”

Yet the increasingly frequent tendency of Trump’s critics to label him a liar is wrongheaded. Trump is something worse than a liar. He is a bullshit artist. In his 2005 book On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt, emeritus philosophy professor at Princeton University, makes an important distinction between lying and bullshitting—one that is extremely useful for understanding the pernicious impact that Trump has on public life. Frankfurt’s key observation is that the liar, even as he or she might spread untruth, inhabits a universe where the distinction between truth and falsehood still matters. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care what is true or not. By his or her bluffing, dissimilation, and general dishonesty, the bullshit artist works to erase the very possibility of knowing the truth. For this reason, bullshit is more dangerous than lies, since it erodes even the possibility of truth existing and being found.

The contrast Frankfurt draws between lying and bullshit is sharp. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,” Frankfurt observes. “Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off. … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”

Frankfurt’s analysis works extraordinarily well in explaining why Trump is so unfazed when called on his bullshit. Trump’s frequent response is to undermine the very possibility that the truth of his claims are knowable. When asked why there are no videos of “thousands and thousands” of Muslim-Americans cheering the 9/11 attacks, Trump told Joe Scarborough that 2001 was so far in the past that the evidence has disappeared. “Don’t forget, 14, 15 years ago, it wasn’t like it is today, where you press a button and you play a video,” Trump said in a phone interview on yesterday’s Morning Joe. “Fourteen, 15 years ago, they don’t even put it in files, they destroy half of the stuff. You know, if you look back 14, 15 years, that was like ancient times in terms of cinema, and in terms of news and everything else. They don’t have the same stuff. Today you can press a button and you can see exactly what went on, you know, two years ago. But when you go back 14, 15 years, that’s like ancient technology, Joe.”

This claim—that he’s telling the truth but that there can be no proof of it—is in some ways more insidious than the initial falsehood. It takes us to a post-truth world where Trump’s statements can’t be fact-checked, and we have to simply accept the workings of his self-proclaimed “world’s greatest memory.” In effect, Trump wants to take us to a land where subjectivity is all, where reality is simply what he says.

A similar gambit to destroy the possibility of objective historical knowledge can be seen in a controversy over a Civil War memorial plaque at a Trump golf course in Sterling, Virginia. The plaque reads: “Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’ ” When informed by The New York Times that historians called the plaque a fiction because there is no record of a battle fought on that spot, Trump petulantly responded: “How would they know that?… Were they there?” Again, what’s disturbing here is an attack on the hard-won scholarship that tries to sift through the evidence of the past to accurately record history. In Trump’s bullshit universe, history is whatever is convenient for him to say.

Why is Trump such a bullshit artist? His background as a real estate developer—a job that requires making convincing sales pitches—is one clue. But Frankfurt’s book offers another suggestion: “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about,” Frankfurt notes. “Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.” As a businessman-turned-politician, Trump often seems in over his head on policy discussions. Maybe that’s the core reason why he’s so given over to bullshitting.

But Trump’s propensity to bullshit shouldn’t be seen as an aberration. Over the last two decades, the GOP as a party has increasingly adopted positions that are not just politically extreme but also in defiance of facts and science. As Michael Cohen argues in the Boston Globe, the seeds of Trump’s rise were planted by earlier politicians who showed how far they could go with uttering outright untruths which their partisans lapped up. This can be seen most clearly in the climate denial which so many leading candidates have given credence to. Or consider the way Carly Fiorina concocted a story about an imaginary Planned Parenthood video. It took a party of liars to make Trump’s forays into outright bullshit acceptable.

The triumph of bullshit has consequences far beyond the political realm, making society as a whole more credulous and willing to accept all sorts of irrational beliefs. A newly published article in the academic journal Judgment and Decision Making links “bullshit receptivity” to other forms of impaired thinking: “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”

It’s no accident that Trump himself is receptive to bullshit ideas promulgated by the likes of anti-vaxxers. A President Trump, based on his own bullshit receptivity and his own bullshit contagiousness, would lead a country that is far more conspiratorial, far more confused, and far less able to grapple with problems in a rational way. Trump’s America would truly be a nation swimming in bullshit.

 

By: Jeet Heer, The New Republic, December 1, 2015

December 2, 2015 Posted by | American History, Donald Trump, Harry G. Frankfurt, Planned Parenthood | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“One Of The Starkest Ideological Divides Facing Voters”: GOP Candidates Range From Hopeless To Hapless On Climate Change

The vast majority of scientists who have devoted their professional lives to studying the Earth’s climate believe human-induced warming is an urgent problem requiring bold action. Republican candidates for president insist they know better.

With one possible exception — Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who barely registers in the polls — GOP contenders either doubt the scientific consensus on climate change or oppose attempts to do anything about it. This promises to be one of the starkest ideological divides facing voters next year.

No pressure; it’s only the fate of the planet hanging in the balance.

Before President Obama could even announce his administration’s tough new curbs on carbon emissions from power plants, Republican hopefuls launched pre-emptive attacks. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who flat-out denies that climate change is taking place, accused scientists of “cooking the books” and Democrats of choosing “California environmentalist billionaires and their campaign donations” over “the jobs of union members.” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida charged that the new rules “will make the cost of electricity higher for millions of Americans.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the regulations “unconstitutional” and claimed they would cost jobs.

These comments came at Sunday’s Freedom Partners forum, organized by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch to give GOP candidates a chance to strut their stuff. In that setting, I suppose, reality-based rhetoric would be too much to hope for.

For the record, let’s take a moment to deal with the above-quoted blather, which is typical of the lines of “argument” from the multitudinous GOP field.

To claim there is no atmospheric warming, Cruz cherry-picks one set of satellite measurement data — paying no attention to other data sets, which show continued warming — and chooses 1998 as a starting point. But that year was an obvious outlier; temperatures took a huge and anomalous leap, likely because of an unusually strong El Niño phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean.

Any graph of yearly global temperatures forms a saw-tooth pattern, but the overall trend is unambiguously upward. Cruz and other climate-change deniers ignore the fact that nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century — the one exception being 1998. The deniers also pretend to be unaware that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by a stunning 40 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when humans began burning fossil fuels in large quantities. Unless Cruz has rewritten the fundamental rules of physics, such an increase has to cause warming.

Rubio claims the new carbon rules will be too expensive for consumers, but he seems not to know that utility companies are already moving away from coal, which releases more carbon dioxide than other fuels such as natural gas. The Obama administration has estimated that electricity prices might rise 4.9 percent by 2020 — a small price to pay given the stakes.

As for Bush’s claim that the regulations are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled last year that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions by power plants, factories and other polluting facilities. The 7-2 decision was written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Enough said.

The rest of the GOP field ranges from hopeless to hapless on the issue. Front-runner Donald Trump — I can’t believe I wrote those words, but that’s what he is — firmly belongs in the former camp. He has called global warming a “hoax” and once tweeted thatthe whole idea “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” Trump has also cited cold winter weather in the United States as “evidence.”

These Republicans seem to forget that the Earth is really, really big — so big that it can be cold in one place, such as Manhattan, and hot in other places. At the very same time.

Of the other candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York Gov. George Pataki and businesswoman Carly Fiorina have all at times acknowledged the scientific consensus on climate change but hemmed and hawed about what, if any, action to take. Rick Santorum joins Trump and Cruz in full denial. The rest — Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson and Jim Gilmore — either aren’t sure warming is taking place or don’t know if humans are causing it.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both promise even tougher action against climate change than Obama has taken. This is a very big reason why elections matter.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 3, 2015

August 7, 2015 Posted by | Climate Change, Global Warming, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Willful Suspension Of Disbelief”: See No Climate Change, Hear No Climate Change, Speak No Climate Change

We already knew that Republicans like to live in their own alternate version of reality, sanitized of any inconvenient truths that might interfere with their ideology. But Florida (as usual) is pushing even the GOP’s incredible willful suspension of disbelief:

The state of Florida is the region most susceptible to the effects of global warming in this country, according to scientists. Sea-level rise alone threatens 30 percent of the state’s beaches over the next 85 years.

But you would not know that by talking to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency on the front lines of studying and planning for these changes.

DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department that has about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.

“We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability,’ ” said Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”

The creepy Orwellianism on display is exacerbated by the fact that of all places in the U.S., ignoring climate change is particularly suicidal for Florida, a state that will be almost entirely inundated as sea levels rise.

For state officials in Florida to ban the words “climate change” from even being uttered for ideological reasons verges perilously on death cult territory. And for what? So that a few rich extraction-based millionaires can stay just a little richer, just a while longer? So that the people who still buy into objectivist ideas about the economy can live in their delusional bubble for a few more years before drowning in the oncoming tide?

On a smaller scale, this kind of behavior would indicate a need for a social services intervention. At this scale it’s basically a human rights issue, and merits some sort of federal intervention. And possibly some form of libertarian cult deprogramming.

 

By: David Atkins, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, March 9, 2015

March 11, 2015 Posted by | Climate Change, Florida, Global Warming | , , , , | Leave a comment

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