Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Lawyers, Guns & Money is one of my favorite blogs because you don’t spend a lot of time wondering what the premises of their posts are. Here’s one that I missed the first time around: The Russian Hacks Were Effective Because of Terrible Reporting Practices. LGM’s Scott Lemieux quotes James Risen’s account of Russian interference in the 2016 election:

There can be little doubt now that Russian intelligence officials were behind an effort to hack the DNC’s computers and steal emails and other information from aides to Hillary Clinton as a means of damaging her presidential campaign. Once they stole the correspondence, Russian intelligence officials used cutouts and fronts to launder the emails and get them into the bloodstream of the U.S. press. Russian intelligence also used fake social media accounts and other tools to create a global echo chamber both for stories about the emails and for anti-Clinton lies dressed up to look like news.

To their disgrace, editors and reporters at American news organizations greatly enhanced the Russian echo chamber, eagerly writing stories about Clinton and the Democratic Party based on the emails, while showing almost no interest during the presidential campaign in exactly how those emails came to be disclosed and distributed. The Intercept itself has faced such accusations. The hack was a much more important story than the content of the emails themselves, but that story was largely ignored because it was so easy for journalists to write about Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.

Do note that The Intercept is the outlet publishing Risen’s story; he’s not randomly calling out one publication. This leads to Lemieux’s broader point:

But hacks alone can’t influence elections. Media coverage of hacks can influence elections, and lessons from the 2016 campaign need to be learned:

Note that the leaks were released in a very careful strategic fashion, designed to to maximum political damage — for example, during the DNC, or the day of the Billy Bush tapes. This should have caused the media to be extremely skeptical about the way the leaks were framed and very careful not to advance the narratives of people obviously trying to ratfuck the elections. It didn’t — quite the opposite.

There’s a fundamental tension of interests here: on the one hand, you have almost a collective action problem. The constant leaking of DNC and Podesta emails went on for months, and every day was a new opportunity to cover an ongoing story for an insatiable public. If the Washington Post (or The Intercept) just decided not to cover any of it, the news is still out there and being covered by everyone else. Really, these email leaks were fundamentally newsworthy—for more reasons than we understood at the time—and it’s the job of the press to report the news. It’s absurd to suggest that the press would just… ignore them. On the other hand, the breathless coverage carried a lot of water for foreign intellligence operators.

What Lemieux ultimately suggests is coverage that spends more time examining the motives of the leakers, and less time pretending the emails revealed some material misconduct by the DNC and Podesta.

The 2018 midterm elections are just about 240 days away. If the federal government doesn’t take affirmative steps to discourage foreign meddling this time around, it’s easy to imagine there will be a lot of strategically leaked emails in the news. Here’s hoping the press handles the do-over better than in 2016.

Filed on under We Still Love You, Journalists

By federal law, there is no real database of guns kept by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. This makes it kind of hard for police to figure out whose gun they just found at a crime scene. Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ wrote the definitive profile of the unbelievable story of How the Cops Actually Trace a Gun. It’s impossible to summarize, but let’s start at the beginning, with a hypothetical murder scene:

So, take that murder we began with. Blood all over the place, cops looking for clues, the booties. They find the gun! What happens next does not involve the wizardry of some supercomputer somewhere. It hinges on a phone call.

That cop with the gun dangling from his pinkie. He dials the tracing center and describes the gun. This is Step One. Let’s say, for example, he reports that he’s got a 9-mm semi-automatic Beretta 92.

​On the other end of that phone is someone like the ATF’s Scott Hester. The problem is that the police aren’t firearms experts, so when a detective finds a Beretta 92 handgun at a crime scene, it might not actually be a Beretta.

He’s holding a hefty book, one of his favorite gun encyclopedias, and he would like to tell me about the Beretta 92 and its various doppelgängers. “Now, the real Beretta’s made in Italy,” he says, “but Taurus is made in Brazil. So you have the Beretta 92 and Taurus PT 92. They’re the exact same gun except the safety’s on the slide on one and on the frame of the other.” I want to tell him it doesn’t matter—I was just picking any random gun so he could walk me through the steps about how to trace it—but it occurs to me that his entire career is built on the premise that, yes, it matters. “Now, Beretta was licensing its stuff in Brazil,” he goes on, “but Taurus bought it out, so they bought up Brazil—Beretta’s factory in Brazil—and licensed it as Taurus.” He’s pointing to a page in the book, tapping hard as if the force of the tap will make this any easier to follow.

I love that the only person who seems more frustrated by the situation than the ATF agent is the reporter, who just wants to know what happens when an officer calls about a particular gun. The fact that there are absolutely no easy answers is a theme that occurs again and again in this excellently written story. Laskas eventually manages to move the conversation along. What happens when you identify the model of gun?

“I need the serial number,” Hester says. He lifts his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug and lets out an ominous sigh.

Serial numbers: not so simple. “It gets worse and worse, more and more problematic.”

Serial numbers, it turns out, are tangled clogs of hell. Half the time what the cop is reading you is the patent number, not the serial number, or it’s the ID of the importer, and then you have the “zero versus letter O” problem, the “numeral 1 versus letter l versus letter small-cap I” problem, and then there is the matter of all the guns with duplicate serial numbers (various Chinese guns, certain pre-1968 American guns).

“Okay?” Hester says, in a pleading sort of way. The number one reason gun traces go dry is because the cop got the gun description or the serial number wrong.

I tell him I need to move on. I could never work here. I tell him let’s pretend there’s a miracle and we definitely know we have a Taurus PT 92 and it has a legible serial number.

We may now move on to Step Two.

Sisyphean seems like an understatement, but incredibly, these people have upwards of a 90% success rate in the face of what ought to be insurmountable obstacles. That particular number comes from a wonderful short documentary on this process. ​

Filed on under Roll That Boulder

Charlie Warzel, for Buzzfeed News, asks a pretty simple question: Why Can Everyone Spot Fake News But The Tech Companies? Warzel begins by discussing the misinformation promoted by Google Search, Facebook, and YouTube in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017.

Over the next two days, journalists and misinformation researchers uncovered and tweeted still more examples of fake news and conspiracy theories propagating in the aftermath of the tragedy. The New York Times’ John Herrman found pages of conspiratorial YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views, many of them highly ranked in search returns. Cale Weissman at Fast Company noticed that Facebook’s crisis response page was surfacing news stories from alt-right blogs and sites like End Time Headlines rife with false information. I tracked how YouTube’s recommendation engine allows users to stumble down an algorithm-powered conspiracy video rabbit hole. In each instance, the journalists reported their findings to the platforms. And in each instance, the platforms apologized, claimed they were unaware of the content, promised to improve, and removed it.

I think that paragraph could just as easily have been written in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, or the Aurora movie theater shooting, or the Sandy Hook shooting, or whatever the next mass shooting will be. Which is kind of Warzel’s point:

All of this raises a mind-bendingly simple question that YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have not yet answered: How is it that the average untrained human can do something that multi-billion dollar technology companies that pride themselves on innovation cannot? And beyond that, why is it that — after multiple national tragedies politicized by malicious hoaxes and misinformation — such a question even needs to be asked?

Look, of course Google and Facebook and Twitter can’t monitor all of the content on their platforms posted by their billions of users. Nor does anyone really expect them to. But policing what’s taking off and trending as it relates to the news of the day is another matter. Clearly, it can be done because people are already doing it.

Seriously, if a handful of Buzzfeed’s reporters can flag this in near real-time for free, surely Facebook and YouTube can hire a dozen folks to watch stuff trend and flag it. Heck, Facebook used to have exactly that thing. It worked great, except for the part where the conspiracy theorists complained that Facebook unfairly blocked right-wing conspiracy theories from trending.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, has called this phenomenon the “View From Nowhere”. Rosen coined this term in 2003, when there was no Facebook; it originally applied to things like the New York Times’s coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War. But here, when Facebook fired the team of people meant to keep the Trending Stories algorithm from promoting conspiracy theories, I see the View From Nowhere striking again. Facebook fired its team because its team couldn’t suppress as many left-wing conspiracy theories as right-wing conspiracy theories. That means that either Facebook hired a bunch of liberal ideologues who brought their politics to work every day, or conspiracy theories find more traction in conservative media than liberal media.

This isn’t new, either. Toward the end of his first term, President Obama famously predicted the Republican fever would break during his second term. I think a national conversation on this is long overdue. Perhaps we’ll get one after the next set of teen crisis actors stage a school shooting.

Filed on under Jobs the Computers Can't Steal Yet

The Washington Posts’s Marc Fisher and Sari Horwitz published a pair of profiles on two of the people at the center of the biggest political scandal in a generation, titled Mueller and Trump: Born to wealth, raised to lead. Then, sharply different choices.

I didn’t know much about Bob Mueller before this (he was on a high school ice hockey team with John F. Kerry?!), and this is a fascinating glimpse into his upbringing and career. For my money, the way Fisher and Horwitz contrast Mueller and Trump even as young men is the most entertaining part of this whole thing. For example, this episode from Trump’s military school tenure as Captain:

Promoted to captain of A Company, Trump won respect from some of the other boys, who said they never wanted to disappoint him. Trump introduced them to a world of fun, setting up a tanning salon in his dorm room, bringing beautiful women to campus and leading the baseball team to victory.

But other cadets said Trump tried to break boys who didn’t bend to his will. During Trump’s senior year, when one of his sergeants shoved a new cadet against a wall for not standing at attention quickly enough, Trump was relieved of his duty in the barracks, said Lee Ains, the student who was shoved.

Trump denied being demoted, saying he was actually moved up. “You don’t get elevated if you partake in hazing,” he told The Post in 2016. He was put in charge of a drill team that would perform in New York City’s Columbus Day Parade.

Is immediately followed by a smash cut to Second Lieutenant Bob Mueller’s tour of duty in Vietnam:

Mutter’s Ridge was a killing ground, a craggy hellscape in Quang Tri province where the Marines had been fighting for years, setting up and abandoning bases as they tried over and over to assert control of one of the main routes the North Vietnamese used to infiltrate the South.

Year after year, the ridge, hard by the demilitarized zone that separated North from South, was the scene of fierce assaults, fleeting victories and fiery retreats.

On Dec. 11, 1968, Mueller led a platoon of Marines into an eight-hour battle around an extensive complex of North Vietnamese army bunkers. The enemy hit Mueller’s men with a “heavy volume of small arms, automatic weapons, and grenade launcher fire,” according to a Marine Corps account.

I love the editorial contrast here. Apart from noting that Trump applied for and received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, that’s about as far as Fisher and Horwitz explicitly take the comparison. Also worth noting, this profile was published before Trump’s absurd remarks about how he’d personally storm into a school shooting. It’s just a coincidence that this impeachment of his character appeared in the Post around the same time as his macho posturing.

Filed on under Who uses a tanning salon in a dorm anyway

The other day, I posted my 15,000th tweet since I first signed up for Twitter in July 2007. Back then, it was called Twttr, and there were no hashtags or @mentions conventions. The homepage was a live stream of every single tweet, and a loaf of bread cost only a nickel.

In the decade since, a lot of things have changed about Twitter. For one, the risk of nuclear war being set off via a tweet has increased enormously. For another, there are a lot more people on Twitter. Bread also costs more. But what really strikes me about social media—Twitter and everything else—is that it seems like the same conversation over and over again. Sure, the conversations are about new things, but isn’t it always the same conversation? Something happens, and you’re either for it or against it, but you’re mad either way because you can’t believe half the country is against it or for it.

After this year’s The Super Bowl, The Outline’s Alex Nichols explored the unseemly parentage of some of these conversations in a piece titled Lady Doritos, the patron saint of outrage marketing:

These brief ping-pong games of feigned outrage can be entertaining, but they ultimately accomplish nothing. Each side digs in its heels until the discussion becomes a parody of itself. The only appreciable effect of any given micro-controversy is that the phrase in question — whether it be “well-done steak,” “shithole countries,” or “covfefe” — sees a brief uptick in search traffic and appears organically in millions of users’ feeds. This proposition is undoubtedly highly attractive to advertisers, who normally have to fork over $200,000 to get something trending on Twitter. Here’s my theory: corporate marketing departments are setting out to hijack this process, thus accomplishing the same thing — but for free.

Set aside the tedium in endless cycles of (genuine, but nonetheless) performative outrage. It’s hard to argue with Nichols’s theory. I mean, I’ve been convinced for a while that Urban Outfitters’s marketing strategy seems to revolve around a bimonthly outrage.

Filed on under The nuclear war is going to kill us first anyway

Here’s one from NPR that’s sad but not necessarily surprising. Trump Administration Plans To Defang Consumer Protection Watchdog:

The CFPB is considered a powerful and independent watchdog. But many Republicans have wanted to shut it down since day one because they think it’s too powerful. [Acting CFPB Director] Mulvaney is one of them. As a Congressman, Mulvaney called the agency a “sick sad joke.” He drafted legislation to abolish it. So people at the bureau were shocked when the president appointed him to run this consumer protection agency.

Within weeks of coming on board, Mulvaney has worked to make the watchdog agency less aggressive. […] In another move that particularly upset some staffers, the new boss also dropped a lawsuit against an alleged online loan shark called Golden Valley Lending. The suit says the lender illegally charges people up to 950 percent interest rates. It took CFPB staffers years to build the case. […]

Mulvaney hasn’t officially offered details about why the case was dropped. Meanwhile, staffers at the bureau say they are worried Mulvaney will block more of their efforts to go after shady financial firms. He’s reviewing numerous ongoing lawsuits and investigations.

So this guy that runs the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn’t like the CFPB, and thinks consumers are already protected well enough. I think companies like Golden Valley shouldn’t be allowed to charge 950% interest. Reasonable minds can disagree, right? Well, this story isn’t as simple as “hey look another market Republicans don’t want to regulate,” although I do continue to be impressed at the breadth of that belief. Rather, the NPR article explains the other shifty things lenders like Golden Valley are doing, and introduces one of the debtors:

For her part, Julie Bonenfant of Detroit still hasn’t paid off her debt to Golden Valley. And she feels “betrayed” by the president, whose appointee dropped the lawsuit.

“To be honest I’m really mad, really pissed, because I actually voted for Trump,” Bonenfant says. “So knowing that his guy threw out this case that affects people like me. I feel kind of like stupid — just kind of like betrayed.”

I do wonder whether these sorts of profiles in buyers’ remorse over the 2016 election are productive or helpful in any way. On the one hand, actions have consequences and if you vote for someone whose policies are going to make your life worse, that’s kind of on you. Trump’s outlandish promises and visible lack of comprehension about just about every issue made him sound like a grifter on the campaign trail.

On the other hand, who could have imagined the guy with the gold-plated Manhattan penthouse wouldn’t stand up for the little guy?

Ah, crap, that was just the same hand again, wasn’t it?

Filed on under Who Watches the Watchdogs