Tyranny of the “Like”

It’s not you, Twitter, it’s me. OK, it’s us. We’re not good for one another.

I can’t stand the way bullies and trolls run rampant on your site. I can’t stand the snark. The relentless negativity. The 280-character limit. The memes. The bots.

Mostly I hate the way you suck my time and attention while feeding me tweets and ads that too often leave me feeling worse — angrier, more agitated and hopeless — than I did when I started.

Twitter is a platform for celebrities, which I have never been, and for their devoted fans and critics, which I do not aspire to be.

Facebook is a platform for the narcissist in each of us, and really, what’s the point? Do I really need anything to cater to the worst aspects of my insecure need for attention and approval? I actually thought about going back to Facebook to try to promote a candidate and to try to swim against the tide and provide a better example. But why? Why would I sell out myself and my friends so cheaply?

This is all a rather painful realization for me. I’ve been online in some way or another since I used my first slow modem to dial up a bulletin board system around 1990. Technology has come a long way, but people are still arguing about all the same stuff and vying for attention on a vastly larger scale.

It used to be that we had to pay for the privilege of voicing opinions and arguing with others online. Now all we have to do is let Facebook and Twitter observe and record every conceivable detail of our online activity. We give the platforms a direct line to what we think, which they use (or sell, or allow to be stolen) to sell us stuff.

We get online to make a difference, but we end up being the ones who are changed — not necessarily for the better.

I reckon I’m still going to blog. I don’t know that very many people will ever read my writing, but that’s OK. I don’t need to be a celebrity. I’m not running for anything. I’m just trying to make some sense of the world around me. If I write something worthwhile, great. Maybe it will find an audience. If not, OK, it’s still worth the effort.

It’s time to focus more on doing things for their own value, and much less on the number of clicks they get.

Pro tip: stop disparaging voters

It’s still way early in the 2020 presidential election campaign, but not too early to see some really dumb remarks being tossed around. Blundering Oracle is here to help:

Knock it off.

What do Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton have in common? Both were major party nominees to lose the U.S. presidential race. Both also made major faux pas which came to light in the late stages of their campaigns, in September of 2012 and 2016, respectively.

The 47%

Romney said:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

The Basket of Deplorables

Clinton said:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

Romney made his remarks at a high-dollar private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida on May 17, 2012. Clinton made hers at an LGBT for Hillary gala in New York City on September 9, 2016. While Romney spoke in a private home and his comments were recorded in secret, Clinton spoke in a ballroom, behind a podium bearing the “Stronger Together” slogan, at an event where Barbra Streisand would perform.

Mitt wrote off half of the country and Hillary wrote off half of her opponents’ supporters. The problem for both candidates, however, was that neither of the disparaged groups knew for sure that the candidates weren’t talking about them.

Both Mitt and Hillary should have known better. If you’re running for office, especially president, you have to consider how everything you say might sound to anyone who hears it. Actually, you have imagine that practically everything you’ve ever said, every picture taken, every tweet, Facebook post, email message (ahem)… Anything could potentially appear, at the worst possible time. Example: Wikileaks dumped a bunch of hacked Democratic email messages about an hour after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape became public. Honest.

Presidential candidates, campaigns, and national political parties should know this stuff. If they keep demonstrating that they don’t, what are we to make of the ordinary online citizen trying to influence somebody to support their favorite candidate or just get a few likes? Hopeless, right? Wrong.

This is simple

Here are some tips:

  • Don’t insult people
  • Name calling is childish
  • Avoid sweeping generalizations — grouping is risky
  • You are not a mind reader — don’t assume
  • Your reader may be smarter than you think ¹
  • Get outside your echo chamber

This is personal

What motivated me to start writing this post was the stuff I was seeing in tweets and comments that really hit close to home. Recently, it seems, it has become more common to see large groups of people written off. Groups such as men / white men / old white men / straight white men / white men without four-year college degrees…

That’s right, I am in all of those groups.

Some people in my own party assume that people in one or more of these groups will not vote for their preferred candidate (or won’t vote at all). Those are bad assumptions. What’s a far safer assumption is that dismissing groups of people or taking them for granted is going to put off people who identify with those groups.

If we disrespect, dismiss or ignore large groups of the electorate, then we are going to lose, and we will deserve to lose.

I think all politics is local, especially national politics. But more than that, all politics is personal. — Pete Buttigieg

It’s a big, wide, wonderful world

When I asked my wife for additional bullet points, she gave me the last one, first in the form of “don’t accept a single story.” When I asked her to expand on that, she said get outside your echo chamber. Don’t accept a single story as the story, or the way it is.

One of the things that happens to presidential candidates over time is that they get exposed to a lot of personal stories from a wide range of people. This weird primary process starts in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, then moves to South Carolina and Nevada and everywhere — both coasts and a lot of places in between.

Oddly enough, the candidates seem to make their biggest mistakes when they are speaking to friendly crowds, and sometimes long before the election. In April 2008 we learned that Barack Obama had said some things that, well, here’s how The Guardian reported it:

“Obama was caught in an uncharacteristic moment of loose language. Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful said: ‘They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.’

Obama was speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco. Many of Obama’s supporters knew what he meant (or felt they did) and that he was not disparaging them. People outside were far less generous. More than a decade later you will still find people who remember Obama’s “guns and religion” because they were offended.

We are susceptible to the same sort of unguarded talk, and it can cause more harm than we know. Getting some retweets and likes makes us feel cool, but if it’s at someone else’s expense, watch out. It’s important to get out of the bubble (and its perceived safety) and remember at all times that anybody might be listening.

¹ I admit to the possibility that you are at least as smart as I am. My wife is, and she’s much better educated, so I get a daily lesson in humility.

The harder path to a better place

Election Day 2020 is scarcely more than 18 months away, so now is obviously the time to put forward a bold plan to take back the White House:

OK, I didn’t say that it’s a good plan

I like George Takei. I followed his Facebook posts for years, often finding them funny, insightful or inspiring, and sometimes re-posting them. I left Facebook over a year ago but recently opened a Twitter account and started following Takei again.

Unfortunately, things had changed. I found Takei’s tweets more numerous, more negative, and too heavily focused on Donald Trump for my liking. Maybe Takei changed or maybe I did. Anyway, I stopped following him last week.

Nonetheless, the tweet above appeared on my feed a couple days ago, undoubtedly because Takei is followed by a number of people I follow. Twitter and other social media work that way — degrees of connection. Two people have mutual contacts and interests and magically they find out about one another.

But algorithms can only go so far at predicting what actually connects people.

Thus, someone I had stopped following (because his tweets had become annoying to me), turned up in my Twitter feed anyway, with a tweet that really pushed my buttons.

Thanks, but no

Blindly (or silently) following a supposed authority is the sort of thing I think people should not do. “Challenging blind obedience” is the main reason I started this blog.

So, no thank you. I will will not take a pledge to speak no ill about our candidates.

Here’s why I think avoiding criticism of candidates is a bad idea.

This is the beginning of a long process

We are a year and a half away from the general election. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses — in which I expect to participate — are over nine months away. The Democratic National Convention won’t happen until mid-July 2020. From there it’s over 15 weeks to the election.

To say it’s a long process is an understatement. It’s a trek.

What’s it all about?

At this point, the process is about selecting a candidate. There are currently twenty declared candidates for the Democratic nomination. One of them — or someone else entirely — might eventually become the nominee. We don’t know how it’s going to play out.

The last candidate who declared is the early front runner for the nomination. That candidate also polls the highest in a head-to-head match up against Donald Trump. That is, a hypothetical match up a year and a half from now. Anything can happen. We’ve seen front runners stumble and unknowns come from nowhere to win. Right now we don’t even know for sure that Donald Trump will still be in the White House or on the ballot.

This seemingly endless campaign is about vetting and evaluating possible candidates to become the next president and vice president. We want to see what they’re made of. Do they share our values? Do they have what it takes to do a really important and difficult job? How do they handle pressure? Can they campaign, raise money, build an organization, craft a message, win support… Can they lead? Can they endure?

Why is it so hard?

When thinking about some of the exceptional American presidents, I think about their gifts and talents and the advantages they enjoyed, but also the hardships and difficulties they overcame. Abraham Lincoln was born poor, lost his mother as a child, and largely schooled himself. Theodore Roosevelt endured poor health and asthma as a child, the loss of his first wife and his mother within hours of one another, and financial loss from a blizzard that wiped out his cattle herd. Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio and was paralyzed in both legs while still in his thirties. John Kennedy lost a brother in World War II and had a PT boat he captained cut in two by a Japanese destroyer on a moonless night in the South Pacific.

Campaigning is hard because the job is hard. Whatever a candidate has gone through to get to a point of running for president, people want to find out what he or she is made of.

Several problems

One of the problems with a pledge not to speak negatively “about any of our candidates” is that it proposes a double standard: speaking no evil about Democrats while saying whatever we want about everybody else. It’s hypocrisy. This is a moral problem.

Other problems with such a pledge are practical. Just because we take it easy on our own candidates does not mean that anyone else will. And if we do not rigorously challenge our own candidates during the primaries, how will we know who is the best choice? What will happen when the general election campaign begins with a candidate who got a pass during the primaries? What happens if a badly flawed candidate sails through the campaign and faces his or her first real test in office?

At some point one of our candidates or one of their candidates is going to get elected and become our president. His or her running mate will become our vice president, a heartbeat away from the presidency, as they say. Nine vice presidents have ascended to the presidency due to the death of the president.

What’s a partisan to do?

Considering my own conduct in the past, I’d say that some of it was a lot more constructive and effective than other stuff. As clever as I usually thought I was being at the time, a lot of those remarks look pretty bad in hindsight. In any event, the world doesn’t need any more snarky tweets, posts, online comments or letters to editors.

It’s easier to tear down than to build up, but the rewards of building are much greater.

Candidate and issue campaigns are always looking for volunteers. At the ground level, political parties run almost entirely on volunteer labor and contributions.

Like a lot of organizations in the United States, political parties are aging. This is both a problem and an opportunity, since the organizations really do need volunteers. The work isn’t always exciting or glamorous, but it’s important and can be very gratifying.

“Model something better”

On April 12, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg commented about inflammatory tweets by Donald Trump, saying “The president today made America smaller. It is not enough to condemn him; we must model something better.

I like the exhortation to provide a better example, rather than just criticizing or staying silent. Buttigieg is asking us to do more: to be the change.

It reminds me of something Barack Obama said when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 2012: “Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place.”

Twenty years and a day

Columbine 1600x900
Colorado’s state flower, the Rocky Mountain columbine

There was a time when people used to say things like “I never thought something like this could happen here.”

Big news was something that happened somewhere else. We’d read about it in newspapers and magazines. We’d hear about it on the radio. We’d see it on the evening news, or sometimes, via the dreaded “We interrupt this program…”

When the Columbine High School shootings occurred on April 20, 1999, I was living in South Denver and working in suburban Englewood, about 12 miles from Columbine. I learned about what was happening that Tuesday afternoon by word of mouth from coworkers. I soon learned that some of my colleagues were parents of Columbine students.

Still, somehow, it seemed far away.

The next morning I had my first cup of coffee in front of the television. I watched one of the network morning programs that was broadcasting live from Columbine. Parents and students were being interviewed in the falling snow. I looked out the window over my shoulder and saw snow falling.

Suddenly it was all too close, too real, too awful.

And in the twenty years and a day since Columbine, too common.

This past Monday, as the twenty year anniversary of Columbine approached, a troubled young woman “infatuated with Columbine” flew from Florida to Colorado and bought a shotgun, setting off an intense search, school lockouts and school closures. Wednesday morning the body of 18-year old Sol Pais would be found near a foot trail at the base of Mount Evans. The young woman had apparently killed herself before the world ever took note of her despair, and without her knowing that she was the subject of great concern.

We must be careful not to give in to the same sort of hopelessness.

School shootings and other mass shootings which were once rare and seemingly far away have become dreadfully commonplace and disturbingly close. While I still lived in Colorado there would be other mass shootings, most notoriously the Aurora theater shootings of July 20, 2012. I woke up to that news from my clock radio, thinking, in my semi-asleep state, that I’d misheard. A dozen people killed and scores wounded in an overnight shooting in Aurora? Nah, that can’t be right.

There would be other school shootings, such as the one that occurred at Arapahoe High School in December 2013. One random victim died from her injuries, along with the shooter, who killed himself.

And there would be church shootings, such as one that occurred literally next door to an office in Aurora where I was doing some volunteer political party work on a Sunday in April 2012. That particular shooting got relatively little coverage, in spite of it being ended by a good guy with a gun — an off-duty Denver police officer. You’d think that the good-guy-with-a-gun folks might have promoted the story, but maybe they prefer stories about an average Joe good guy with a gun.

Being in the vicinity of so much gun violence isn’t a function of having lived in metropolitan Denver, Colorado, it’s a function of living in modern day America. It can happen here, anywhere, anytime.

I won’t go into a long harangue about the statistics of gun violence in the United States. Suffice it to say that since Columbine, the numbers have gone up. Way up. One of the things that’s commonly overlooked, however, is that most gun deaths in the USA — more than half, almost 24,000 people in 2017 — are suicides.

People are killing other people, but more often they are killing themselves. Guns and ammunition are readily available, legally or otherwise, virtually on demand to virtually anybody.

Guns and ammo aren’t the only problem, of course, and it’s damn hard to make headway in this realm. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.


What the blank?

Mueller Report
A screen grab of the Mueller Report (Dylan Moriarty/The Wall Street Journal)

Nothing to see here. Or is there?

The Mueller report went public today, sort of. The “lightly redacted” 448-page report by the special counsel was released to the public, preceded by a press conference by Attorney General William Barr.

Barr continued to spin the report as he did in his March 24 summary as being more favorable toward the President than a less devoted reader might conclude. In the redacted report itself the public finally saw the rest of two statements that Barr had selectively quoted in his summary last month (see “It’s like a mini-election” for more on Barr’s prior statement).

Barr seems to me far more dedicated to clearing the President of any legal entanglements and empowering the executive branch than pursuing foreign election interference or maintaining constitutional checks and balances.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Barr had telegraphed his view of presidential powers and his willingness to carry water for Donald Trump before Trump nominated him or the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed him. Everybody knew, or should have known, that Barr was going to act as Trump’s defense lawyer, not the people’s chief law enforcement officer.

What was blanked out of Mueller’s report? Your guess is as good as mine.

I’m not one of those who believes that absolute transparency is a good thing or that any secrecy is inherently bad. Government needs the ability to do some things in secret, or it cannot function. HOWEVER, there needs to be oversight, or government cannot be trusted.

Congress needs the unredacted report.

Whatever conclusions Mr. Barr has reached about whether criminal charges could be brought against a sitting president, or whether such charges could be proven, it is not the Attorney General’s role to decide whether a president has committed an impeachable offense. The constitutional power of impeachment resides in the House of Representatives and the power to remove from office or acquit resides in the Senate. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the impeachment of a president, and the vice president gets no vote.

Without knowing the full contents of the Mueller report, it is impossible for anyone to offer an informed opinion about whether the President’s actions warrant impeachment. Congress needs to be able to make an informed decision and Congress alone has the constitutional authority.

The executive branch cannot shield a president from investigation by Congress. I can live without knowing every word that was blanked out of Mueller’s report, but the House Judiciary Committee cannot.

Barr needs to provide the unredacted Mueller report to Congress, like, yesterday.

Change the channel

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. — Oscar Wilde

After about five weeks on Twitter, I realized the feed was making me nuts.

I had followed people I liked, mostly political and media figures. A few people (very few, as it happens) followed me. I followed more people. I clicked like. I tweeted and retweeted and commented. I got followed by strangers, mostly bots or trolls or people with something to sell, and blocked them.

So I did a reset. I stopped following — unfollowed — everyone. I deleted some of my tweets and retweets. I built a much smaller list of people to follow.

And the Twitter feed was still maddening.

No, it’s not because people weren’t talking about me. It’s because what they were talking about, incessantly, was Donald Trump.

I blamed @realDonaldTrump.

So, I blocked him.

My Twitter feed got better. A lot better. Things improved enough that I could finally see the problem for what it is. As awful as Trump’s tweets are — and they are bad — they are merely the messages. What makes Trump’s tweets so pernicious is the delivery system: the messengers — Trump’s Twitter followers.

As of this writing, @realDonaldTrump has 59.7 MILLION Twitter followers.

That’s 59.7 million Twitter users who signed up to read any utterance that makes its way from the very stable genius to a smart phone and around the world in an instant. Read, retweet, comment, repeat.

There is no way for an ordinary person to know how many of Trump’s Twitter followers voted for him or consider themselves Trump supporters. Journalists, politicians, and millions of non-supporters follow the president’s Twitter account because of the office, not the person in it. Many openly criticize Trump. They stand in opposition to much of what he stands for. Yet they — we — regularly retweet and comment on his tweets.

How many of those comments and retweets are, in turn, commented upon and retweeted? We see a response we like and retweet it, often along with the original tweet or a quote from it. This is the nature of a social media echo chamber.

Twitter users are being used to amplify and distribute messages even if they disagree with them.

How bad is this problem? If you’re on Twitter, look around you. Look at your feed. Look at the news and opinion sources you follow online, on cable, over the airwaves or in print. Trump’s tweets are everywhere.

Sean Spicer, when asked in June 2017 if Trump’s tweets were considered official statements, answered “The president is president of the United States, so they are considered official statements by the president of the United States.”

Who has the ability to send a tweet that is supposedly an official communication from the president of the United States? What if the sender of a @realDonaldTrump tweet is not really Donald Trump? Who else has access to Trump’s Twitter account and how do we know for certain who is talking?

These are not merely hypothetical questions. Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, claimed in December 2017 that he, not the President, had dictated a tweet that said Trump “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” Who really authored the tweet and who sent it?

In other words, Trump’s Twitter followers may be reading and repeating the work of a ghost writer.

Or, potentially, a hacker.

What if Trump’s phone or Twitter account gets hacked? They must be among the most high profile hacking targets on the planet. A Chinese national was arrested last month after allegedly lying her way into Mar-a-Lago while toting a bunch of electronics gear. Was she a spy? We must assume that people are trying to hack the Donald’s accounts.

There was a hope at one time, however naive, that social media companies might stop the president of the United States from abusing their services. There are terms of service, after all, which supposedly govern what users can and cannot do. The Twitter Rules, for example, explicitly state “You may not make specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people.”

What about tweeting incendiary comments and videos about, well, virtually anyone? Or threatening an entire country with nuclear annihilation, as Trump did in January 2018 when he tweeted about his bigger and more powerful nuclear button? Twitter does not enforce its terms of service where Trump is concerned. The company pays lip service to the idea of labeling tweets that violate the terms, and it does remove disputed content (such as Trump’s new campaign ad, which allegedly used copyrighted material without permission), but Trump is still tweeting at will.

The system is being gamed. We are being played and we have to stop playing along. We are being used to promote someone else’s narrative and distract from issues which urgently need attention. We are wearing ourselves and each other out, trying to get the most likes and retweets, and carrying water for someone else in the process.

Last Sunday, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg* appeared on Meet the Press and encouraged Americans to “envision the world as it’ll be in 2054… and just change the channel from this mesmerizing horror show that’s going on in Washington right now.”

Indeed, we need to change the channel. Stop following Trump’s tweets; ignore them. Twitter will not disable Trump’s account, but there is no reason any individual cannot block it. Block @realDonaldTrump. Block the accounts of his promoters and enablers. We need to stop paying so much attention to those folks and stop talking about them all the time.

Let them know what Oscar Wilde meant.

*Buttigieg is expected to formally announce his candidacy for president on Sunday April 14 in South Bend.

A short adventure in misinformation and bias online

Yesterday I saw a tweet that included a video clip of Donald Trump allegedly calling people animals. The tweet itself read @realDonaldTrump on people asking for asylum “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

The undated video clip from C-SPAN was 47 seconds long, but I didn’t bother to listen to it at the time.

I told my wife later in the evening that the President was saying asylum seekers were not people, but animals.

Later still, I read a rebuttal of the original tweet, retweeted without comment by Denver TV journalist Kyle Clark:

I followed the link to Snopes, determined that I’d been played, and gave my wife an update. My confirmation bias had gotten the better of me.

But the story isn’t over just yet…

My Twitter feed told me which presidential candidate had referenced the misleading tweet: it was U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY):

I don’t actually follow Senator Gillibrand on Twitter, but I follow others who follow her and, well, this is how Twitter works. You follow somebody who follows somebody and the next thing you know you’re being misled.

Thinking that Senator Gillibrand herself might have been misled, I posted a comment:

As of this writing my comment has been liked 60 times, commented upon, and retweeted — entirely by total strangers, mostly Trump enthusiasts, and many Snopes critics.

So far I haven’t seen any correction by the candidate. I have no idea whether the man who started the whole thing knows or cares that his original tweet was seriously misleading.

The takeaways? The adage “consider the source” is especially relevant online, where we often don’t know sources, much less their credentials or motives. I’m also challenged to face my own biases and the human tendency to favor information that supports what I already believe or have heard before.