Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Today, the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire. While more than one person on Twitter made the point that watching something beautiful burn while you look on helplessly was a pretty good metaphor for 2019, this report from Ryan Broderick of Buzzfeed News was extremely 2019:

Several news outlets quickly started livestreaming the fire on YouTube. However, underneath several of them was a small gray panel titled “September 11 attacks,” which contained a snippet from an Encyclopedia Britannica article about 9/11.

The feature is part of a larger rollout of tools and disclaimers to prevent users from consuming misinformation on the platform.

If a user clicked the gray box, they would be taken to the full article about the US terror attack.

BuzzFeed News found at least three livestreams of the Notre Dame fire from major news outlets with the 9/11 disclaimer. The disclaimer was then removed, one by one, after several minutes. But by then, Twitter users had taken notice.

Remember how YouTube finally decided it was going to do something about willfully misleading conspiracy theories on their site? And how YouTube’s countermeasures are literally just “linking to Wikipedia?” I don’t know why I assumed YouTube was going to hire people to do said linking, because of course they’re not. They’re trying to teach machines to recognize misleading videos and also simultaneously recognize the right Wikipedia page which viewers need to read to avoid becoming radicalized by YouTube’s endless feed of videos.

What a farce.

Published on under Just Hire Humans Already

At the end of this month, Marvel’s latest Avengers movie will be released. The cast is already being dispatched to various talk shows and press junkets to promote the movie, as if the largest film franchise in the world needs promotion. For Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in these movies, this promotional tour is a farewell of sorts, as his contract has expired. Perhaps as a result, there are more philosophical questions than I expected in this Hollywood Reporter interview with Chris Evans, including an extended (for a celebrity puff piece) bit about how much time Evans spends fighting with Nazis on Twitter. This paragraph is my favorite:

Evans has a platform and he’s using it. But like a lot of straight white men seeking to consciously and conscientiously navigate a tumultuous moment in the history of straight white male-dom, he’s learned that shutting up is important, too. At [actress Jenny] Slate’s urging, he read Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions, a collection of essays about the insidious side effects of patriarchy, and took away a great deal. “You have to understand that you don’t understand,” he says. It’s not the most action-heroish way to look at things — but that may be the secret of his appeal as a movie star.

There are a lot of reasons why Chris Evans was a great Steve Rogers. For one, they both have two first names. No less important is that—in a Cinematic Universe of sarcastic wise-cracking superheroes and villains—he managed to seem earnest and kind-hearted while basically wearing an American flag. There’s no better illustration of this than perhaps my favorite Captain America scene: in the first Captain America movie, before scrawny Steve Rogers gets the super solider serum. When Rogers is asked why he wants to join the army and fight in World War II, the question put to him is “Do you want to kill Nazis?” Rogers answers that he doesn’t want to kill anyone, he just doesn’t like bullies, no matter where they come from.

Now, look, I love comic books and comic book movies, and I recognize that they’re not meant to be works of high art or philosophy. That’s what we have museums and episodes of The Good Place for. I’m willing to overlook clunky dialog that falls flat sometimes to enjoy the holistic experience of something silly and fun for a couple hours.

But that corny line—he doesn’t like bullies—really lands with me. This is partly because he’s a good actor, and partly because I met Chris Evans once, before he was Captain America, and I don’t think he’s acting.

Story Time!

It’s 2010. I’m at the New York City Comic Convention, standing in line to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons on a life-size game board. Squares, not hexes, for those of you wondering. Each ‘session’ is two rounds long, and whoever kills the dragon in two turns gets some D&D swag. I’m next in line to play, so my attention is focused on the players currently in-game; I want to see what works for them and what doesn’t.

This is made difficult when a guy with a microphone walks up to me. He’s got a cameraman following him around, and he’s interviewing someone who’s supposed to be famous. They’re doing one of those “a celebrity goes to Comic Con and experiences normal people” things. The interviewer—a Cool Guy with a popped collar on his polo shirt—faces camera and starts his spiel with something like “I’m here with Chris Evans on the convention floor at Comic Con.” At this point, Marvel had cast Evans as Captain America, but he was still most famous for the Fantastic Four movies.

Sidebar: Before we go further, I should address the Cool Guy bit. I think we all learn in high school—and should do our best to immediately thereafter unlearn—that there exist certain social tribes or castes which are inherently at odds with one another. For purposes of this story, I mean the nerds and the cool kids. Once upon a time, in the distant history of 2010, I myself still subscribed to the idea that cool kids liked to bully nerds. The last few years, where the toxic masculinity behind Gamergate led more or less directly into a fascist white nationalist insurgency in our national politics, has taught me that the world has much more to be afraid of nerds than perhaps the other way around.

Back to our story: to prove that he is, in fact, at Comic Con Amongst The Nerds, the Cool Guy interviewer asks what I’m standing in line for. I’m a little concerned about how this conversation is going to go, but explain that I’m waiting to play Dungeons and Dragons. He replies back, “oh, cool. How do you play?” From the look on his face, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think it’s cool and he doesn’t want to learn how to play. But I oblige, and explain that you fight monsters like dragons in settings like dungeons, and when you try to take an action, you determine your success or failure by rolling twenty-sided dice and adding some bonuses to the numbers that come up. It was perhaps not the best explanation of this game in the history of explanations.

At this point, Cool Guy gives me the “wow, that sounds super complicated. You probably have to be really smart to play, right?” I remember thinking to myself: how absurd that I played Dungeons and Dragons all throughout high school and was never once mocked for it, only to come to Comic Con of all places and find someone making fun of me. On camera, no less! I was at a loss for how to answer that second question.

And here’s where Chris Evans, silent until now, jumps in. He gently nudges Cool Guy and says “yeah, man, it takes a real genius to count to twenty!” Then Captain America flashes me a sheepish grin. Cool Guy turns to him, sighs, and they begin their interview with something banal like “what’s your favorite part of Comic Con so far?” So, uh, that’s how I met Chris Evans.

I freely admit this is about the gentlest, briefest encounter with bullying in recorded history. Some guy I don’t know and will never see again sarcastically remarking about the large number of rules for a game with a large number of rules didn’t cause me to lose any sleep. If it weren’t for the brush with celebrity, I’d have forgotten about it by the end of the day. But I think Chris Evans was a good Captain America in part because he’s the kind of guy who stood up for a nerdy guy one afternoon almost a decade ago. He pulled off “earnest and kind-hearted” in the Marvel movies because I think he is. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like bullies.

Published on under A Day In The Life

Laura Hazard Owen in Nieman Journalism Lab, recounting the long, complicated, and extremely frustrating history of Medium

Less than a year after Medium abruptly canceled the membership programs of its remaining publishing partners, the company is coming back around like an ex promising you they’ve changed. “We are seeking partners to create new publications on Medium, which we will help fund and distribute,” it said in a blog post Tuesday.

It’s not the first time, of course. Medium is nearly seven years old. It’s raised $132 million in venture funding, and it is not profitable. It has undergone countless pivots. When I saw that new search for “partners” last week, I started trying to count how many — and then ended up documenting the history of Medium via articles and tweets and Ev Williams statements. Why do that? I don’t know. I guess I was trying to figure the company out in my own head.

This isn’t the first time I’ve linked to a critical analysis of Medium on Blog Ipsa, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. For all the fanfare, you do have to wonder what Medium’s plan is.

Published on under Largely Useless

Buzzfeed News’s Anne Helen Peterson on student loan forgiveness, the ostensibly positive topic that nonetheless fills me with more existential dread than anything apart from my own mortality:

The premise of Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007, is straightforward: Working in public service doesn’t pay a lot, and a lot of public service jobs — including teaching and social work — require advanced degrees, which in turn often necessitate hefty student loans. How do you encourage people to train for those jobs, jobs that are essential to society, even when it means taking on massive amounts of debt? You make “loan forgiveness” part of the package. (To be clear, these borrowers aren’t receiving a free education — they’re still paying. Indeed, in many forgiveness cases, what’s really getting “forgiven” after 10 years of repayment isn’t the original loan balance, but all the interest that’s accumulated on top of it.)

From the beginning, the PSLF program has presented itself as deceptively simple: Get on an income-based repayment plan, work in public service for 10 years while making monthly payments, and the remainder of your student debt will be eliminated. That was the promise, made on behalf of the federal government. Yet the program’s apparent simplicity (and the lack of guidelines on how to implement or monitor the program) has now led to the defrauding of tens of thousands of borrowers. That includes students like Jen, who, after years of believing she’d been enrolled in the PSLF program, was told she’d originally been given incorrect information, and her “10-year” clock would start in 2019, at zero.

The bulk of Peterson’s piece is reporting on the broader effects of crippling student loan burdens on an entire generation, but those paragraphs hit pretty close to home. For many of us with postgraduate degrees who work in public service, the monthly payments required by the PSLF program are less than the amount of interest that compounds on our principal each month. I’m nine years out of school, and the total amount owed on my student loans is nearly twice what I borrowed. If the PLSF only forgives interest, I’ll have spent ten years removing the interest that I racked up over ten years.

Read the rest at Buzzfeed News.

Published on under You're Never A Loan

The federal grand jury convened by Special Counsel Bob Mueller indicted Roger Stone last week. Stone, you’ll recall, is President Trump’s longest-serving political advisor who never officially worked for the Trump campaign because he likes to operate in legal gray areas. You may also recall that we’ve known since Mueller’s July 2018 indictment of Russian spies that Roger Stone is in serious legal jeopardy, because the Special Counsel doesn’t typically quote Twitter Direct Messages unless the parties were into some shady stuff.

Here we are six months later, and the other shoe has dropped. It’s not as bad as I was expecting, but the indictment is still serious: Stone’s charged with one count of obstructing a government proceeding, five counts of making false statements, and one count of witness tampering. If convicted on all counts, he could spend upwards of five years in prison, although he’s more likely to receive a sentence of three to four years. Stone’s younger than Manafort and faces a fraction of the sentence, so we’re not in “dying in a prison cell” territory yet. I wouldn’t bet on Stone flipping against anyone.

The indictment

Right off the bat, the charges are interesting because they relate to the coverup, not the collusion proper. Stone has been indicted for withholding records from Congressional investigators, lying (over and over) to Congress, and tampering with a witness testifying before Congress. Honestly, this indictment is pretty straightforward for the most part. When Stone is tampering with a witness by encouraging him to lie, he quotes Richard Nixon and the movie The Godfather Part II. When that doesn’t work, Stone just starts threatening bodily harm to the witness and his little dog, too. It’s amusing that Stone put all these crimes in writing, but there’s no cool counterintelligence flexing going on here.

That’s not to say it’s boring, though. Like the July 2018 indictment of Russian spies, this indictment offers the briefest glimpses of Stone’s and the Trump Campaign’s conduct (i.e. the collusion). The most tantalizing of these pieces in the indictment is how a Senior Trump Campaign Official was directed in July 2016 to contact Stone about Wikileaks and stolen emails. It’s unclear who on the Trump campaign was senior enough to direct a Senior Trump Campaign Official to contact Stone, but it’s a short list. It should go without saying that whoever that person is is in a lot of trouble. Especially if that person was senior enough to have been in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and knew the Russian government was using Wikileaks to disseminate stolen emails.

But fundamentally, this indictment alleges a coverup, not actual collusion. There are a couple of possibilities here:

  1. Bob Mueller isn’t employing any particular strategy here, he’s just indicting all the criminal conduct that comes across his desk. The fact that Stone’s been indicted for lying about his actions but not for The Collusion proves there was no collusion. The legal aphorism “the coverup is worse than the crime” becomes the 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  2. Bob Mueller, who ran the FBI for twelve years and held a variety of other senior roles in the Department of Justice for roughly another decade, has a strategy for running what might be the single most consequential FBI investigation in United States history.

it’s time for some game theory

I’m being characteristically glib with the first option. It is actually entirely possible that for all the huge red flags and all the circumstantial evidence, no actual crimes were committed by the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. After the election, those campaign officials lied about their sketchy-but-legal behavior; said lies are the only crimes.

As regards the second option, I can’t read Mueller’s mind. But I can point out that defendants have a right to see the evidence against them. Mueller’s been burned by this already; the very first Russian entity he indicted was Concord Management, which employed Russian private citizens to run social media disinformation campaigns interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. After the Special Counsel gave Concord’s lawyers reams of evidence, whoops lol that evidence magically showed up in an October 2018 Russian social media campaign to interfere with the U.S. midterm elections.

Fun fact: the President and three dozen of his associates are in a joint defense agreement; if Mueller were to put all his cards on the table for the first person indicted, that person would tell the rest of the parties what Mueller knows. The three dozen potential defendants would all get their stories straight and strategize about how to fight the evidence they know about. On the other hand, if Mueller charges some guy with seven counts of the coverup and none of the collusion, that defendant only gets to see the evidence of the seven coverup counts. I’d argue that Mueller’s got a pretty good incentive to hide his cards until he needs them.

Now, I’m definitely not suggesting Mueller’s got thirty-six indictments for thirty-six conspirators ready to go, and that Nancy Pelosi is going to be the President by noon tomorrow. That’s a silly conspiracy theory unto itself. All I’m saying is I don’t think the absence of collusion-related charges in any one of these indictments means there’s no There there. Consider that Paul Manafort was indicted three separate times as Mueller sifted through more and more evidence. Consider further that Mueller has thousands of gigabytes of evidence against Stone, which is thousands more than you’d need to show Stone tampered with a witness via text message and lied to Congress a few times.

I don’t know what the endgame looks like, but I don’t think it’s this.

one more thing

I’m reasonably convinced there’s no difference between the investigation for collusion and the investigation for the coverup.

A few weeks back, the New York Times published this bombshell report about the FBI opening a counterintelligence investigation into whether President Trump is a Russian agent. And a few weeks before that, a Times reporter presented Lawfare’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Wittes with the General Counsel of the FBI’s sealed testimony to Congress that the FBI’s investigation of the coverup is about Russian election interference. Now Wittes thinks collusion and the coverup are actually the same thing.

The public understanding of and debate over the Mueller investigation rests on several discrete premises that I believe should be reexamined. The first is the sharp line between the investigation of “collusion” and the investigation of obstruction of justice. The second is the sharp line between the counter-intelligence components of the investigation and the criminal components. The third and most fundamental is the notion that the investigation was, in the first place, an investigation of the Trump campaign and figures associated with it.

These premises are deeply embedded throughout the public discussion. When Bill Barr challenges what he imagines to be the predicate for the obstruction investigation, he is reflecting one of them. When any number of commentators (including Mikhaila Fogel and me on Lawfare last month) describe separate investigative cones for obstruction and collusion, they are reflecting it. When the president’s lawyers agree to have their client answer questions on collusion but draw a line at obstruction, they are reflecting it too.

But I think, and the Times’s story certainly suggests, that the story may be more complicated than that, the lines fuzzier, and the internal understanding of the investigation very different along all three of these axes from the ones the public has imbibed.

The popular conception of Mueller’s investigation—to which I subscribed until recently—has been two separate questions: Q1 was Russian interference and Q2 was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Wittes wants to flip that on its head: Q1 is Russian interference, Q1-a is collusion between U.S. persons and Russia, and Q1-b is the coverup by U.S. persons.

As Wittes points out, plenty of commentators (such as Bill Barr, the future Attorney General) argue the President is incapable of committing the crime of obstruction of justice, because as the chief executive of the United States, he has ultimate discretion over all criminal investigations. Under that theory, ordering FBI Director James Comey not investigate Russian election interference and firing him when he continued to investigate is legal in the same way that shaving your beard isn’t assault because it’s your beard. It’s your FBI, they argue.

That view assumes the coverup is a standalone crime, whereas Wittes points out why the FBI might be treating it quite differently:

But what if the factual premise is more complicated than that? What if the pattern that jumped out at the FBI officials was that the President of the United States had just sought to interfere in an investigation of Russian intelligence activity and then boasted on television that his action was connected in some way to the Russia probe? What if the FBI knew that by the time he did so, the president had drafted a never-sent dismissal letter to Comey, and this letter also made clear that the Russia probe was on his mind at the time he acted?

The facts actually got worse over the next few days. Because even as the bureau was beginning its obstruction inquiry, Trump boasted about his action to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, saying he had relieved pressure on himself by taking it.

If that’s the case, the coverup isn’t just a way for the President to keep his large adult son from going to prison, the coverup is a way for Russia to prevent the FBI’s counterintelligence operation from investigating, uncovering, and exposing the nature and extent of the election interference. The President can theoretically shut down any criminal investigation he likes, can he shut down a counterintelligence operation into whether the President is a Russian agent?

That’s a whole new kind of gray area.

Published on under Leave No Stone Unindicted

Buzzfeed News on how algorithms designed to increase engagement at all costs end up sending users to bizarre conspiracy theories:

How many clicks through YouTube’s “Up Next” recommendations does it take to go from an anodyne PBS clip about the 116th United States Congress to an anti-immigrant video from a designated hate organization? Thanks to the site’s recommendation algorithm, just nine.

The video in question is “A Day in the Life of an Arizona Rancher.” It features a man named Richard Humphries recalling an incident in which a crying woman begged him not to report her to Border Patrol, though, unbeknownst to her, he had already done so. It’s been viewed over 47,000 times. Its top comment: “Illegals are our enemies , FLUSH them out or we are doomed.”

The Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as an anti-immigrant hate group in 2016, posted the video to YouTube in 2011. But that designation didn’t stop YouTube’s Up Next from recommending it earlier this month after a search for “us house of representatives” conducted in a fresh search session with no viewing history, personal data, or browser cookies. YouTube’s top result for this query was a PBS NewsHour clip, but after clicking through eight of the platform’s top Up Next recommendations, it offered the Arizona rancher video alongside content from the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and PragerU, a right-wing online “university.”

It’s not just an anodyne TV clip from PBS; Buzzfeed News documents step by step what happens after you finish watching a video. Even with a fresh user account that YouTube’s never seen before, the algorithm steers people down bizarre political conspiracy theory rabbit holes. When asked why, the YouTubes and Facebooks of the world say ‘ah, you see, but this content does not violate our community standards and also we are an international media company who cannot be certain whether VP Mike Pence is a time-traveling lizard Nazi or not.’

Which is why I’m glad Buzzfeed News also catalogued how many videos YouTube recommended for a while before deleting.

The platform does, at least, seem capable of finding and removing it — though not, it would seem, until after its own recommendation system has helped these videos accrue tens of thousands of views. Clearly, the people behind these channels have figured out how to game YouTube’s recommendation algorithm faster than YouTube can chase them down, leading the company to recommend their pirated videos before imminently deleting them.

I’m not sure if “eventually deleting” is an improvement or not, but I hope YouTube can figure this out before it turns us all into unhinged conspiracy theorists.

…unless they want us to be conspiracy theorists?

Published on under Like Subscribe and Follow the White Rabbit