Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Aside From Trump, Who Else Is Aiming A Flamethrower At Democracy? ... by gimleteye

The Columbia Journalism Review published: "Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda By Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman" on March 3, 2017.
THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION SHOOK the foundations of American politics. Media reports immediately looked for external disruption to explain the unanticipated victory—with theories ranging from Russian hacking to “fake news.” We have a less exotic, but perhaps more disconcerting explanation: Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

The UK Guardian, and excellent reporting by Carole Cadwalladr, is more specific in its dissection: Breitbart was not the agent of change -- a media property that somehow fortuitously grabbed the attention of disaffected white voters for Trump. Breitbart, through its primary investors -- including the reclusive billionaire Robert Mercer -- discovered an entirely new way of identifying, targeting then activating voters.

This Grail of electoral politics tied together psychological operations, computer algorithms, and massive social media databases like Facebook.

Cadwalladr writes from the perspective of Great Britain, still struggling to come to terms with the 2015 vote to exit the European Union.
Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are entwined. And Cambridge Analytica is one point of focus through which we can see all these relationships in play; it also reveals the elephant in the room as we hurtle into a general election: Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade - in a radical and alarming way - by Trump.

There are three strands to this story. How the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the US. How British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire. And how we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.

We first wrote about Cambridge Analytica, the corporate entity that ties the Mercers to Steve Bannon -- Trump's White House alter ego -- here.
It was $10m of Mercer’s money that enabled Bannon to fund Breitbart – a rightwing news site, set up with the express intention of being a Huffington Post for the right. It has launched the careers of Milo Yiannopoulos and his like, regularly hosts antisemitic and Islamophobic views, and is currently being boycotted by more than 1,000 brands after an activist campaign. It has been phenomenally successful: the 29th most popular site in America with 2bn page views a year. It’s bigger than its inspiration, the Huffington Post, bigger, even, than PornHub. It’s the biggest political site on Facebook. The biggest on Twitter.

Prominent rightwing journalist Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site but died in 2012, told Bannon that they had “to take back the culture”. And, arguably, they have, though American culture is only the start of it. In 2014, Bannon launched Breitbart London, telling the New York Times it was specifically timed ahead of the UK’s forthcoming election. It was, he said, the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”. France and Germany are next.

A determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mould journalism to their own ends
But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

Huffington Post had this to say in its devastating expose of the Mercers:
For years, Robert has embraced a supercharged libertarianism with idiosyncratic variations. He is reportedly pro-death penalty, pro-life and pro-gold standard. He has contributed to an ad campaign opposing the construction of the ground zero mosque; Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, a group that is associated with fringe scientific claims; and Black Americans for a Better Future—a vehicle, the Intercept discovered, for an African-American political consultant who has accused Barack Obama of “relentless pandering to homosexuals.” Magerman, Robert’s former colleague at Renaissance, recalls him saying, in front of coworkers, words to the effect that “your value as a human being is equivalent to what you are paid. ... He said that, by definition, teachers are not worth much because they aren't paid much.” His beliefs were well-known at the firm, according to Magerman. But since Robert was so averse to publicity, his ideology wasn’t seen as a cause for concern. “None of us ever thought he would get his views out, because he only talked to his cats,” Magerman told me. (The Blow It Up Billionaires, by Vicky Ward, Huffington Post)

That's right: a billionaire who only talked to his cats has taken a flamethrower to democracy.

What the Mercer operation conducted is so much more than the vilification of Hillary Clinton, who had been a target of the Rupert Murdoch right-wing Fox News since her husband was elected president in 1992.

The Trump election, and its 77,000 vote margin in the Electoral College, points to an incredible victory by Russia, described by former director of national intelligence chief James Clapper in Senate testimony yesterday, as the biggest coup in that nation's history.

Putin sensed the weakness in a democracy irredeemably compromised by political money (cf. Citizens United decision by the USSC) and found exactly the right Trojan Horse in Donald J. Trump.

The extent to which Putin's intelligence propaganda against Trump's opposition, delivered through Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0, matches Trump's own permanent campaign rhetoric is breathtaking. Nor is it clear that Trump supporters, who cannot be persuaded by reason, understand they are being played through the social media silos on Facebook where they lurk, along with bots and sock puppets created by Russia.

The good news, for the time being, is that voters in France got it right in the recent presidential election, rejecting Putin's favorite Marie Le Pen who had been boosted, just like Trump, with a massive data dump damaging to Marcron only days before the election. As observers noted, France both has a media-blackout on sensationalist news just before the election and no right-wing media message machine like Rupert Murdoch's Fox News empire.

There are lessons, if only Americans will learn them.


Steve Hagen said...

Excellent story...thanks....

Anonymous said...

Lessons and observations abound. Comey stabbed Hillary in the heart so Trump could win. After getting in office, Trump stabs Comey in the back as he investigates the President's Russian connections. Now many Americans believe Putin is running the White House. Last week the House approved a healthcare bill that will kill millions of Americans. Trump indicates he wants to send troops to the undefeatable Afghanistan, setting up the deaths of many American military personnel. Lots of people think the President is mentally ill. We are now faced with the urgency of now.

Anonymous said...

Those poor cats.