A Prison Of Lies: How Misinformation Became a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry and Broke Democracy

Desktop printer printing money

iStock

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Imagine if counterfeiting suddenly became legal. Say we asked people not to do it — but there would be no penalty if they did.

What would happen?

Simple: There would be an explosion of fake money. If people could buy things with currency worth nothing more than paper and some ink, many would, of course, do just that. Crooks would print up more and more counterfeit bills, which would start to take over from real money.

A venerable principle of economics explains why this happens. It’s named Gresham’s Law, after 16th century financier Sir Thomas Gresham.

The short version: Since sound money is expensive, and bad money is cheap, bad money proliferates and takes over the economy.

More recently, Gresham’s Law has been extended to information: Bad information drives out good, and for similar reasons.

In America in recent decades, an industry of information counterfeiters has sprung up, and it’s making a few, unprincipled people very rich, at the expense of everyone else.

And at the expense of democracy.

Bad money threatens the free market. But bad information threatens freedom itself. That’s because a vote is only as good as the information it’s based on. If your choices are based on illusions, what are they really worth?

Much of our population now votes, and makes other crucial decisions, based on bad information. Much of what they think they know about the world is untrue.

In effect, they live in a prison of lies, one whose walls they can’t even see.

When Everything You Know Is Wrong

  1. Our military is weak.
  2. Unemployment is rising.
  3. The stock market is falling.
  4. The deficit is exploding.
  5. Voter fraud is rampant.
  6. Crime is out of control.
  7. Many of the criminals are immigrants, flooding through our porous borders to rape and murder innocent Americans.
  8. Terrorists are coming the same way.

Given these terrifying facts, is it any wonder that Americans voted in 2016 for a candidate who promised to save us?

How could it have gone any other way? Hillary Clinton pledged to continue and build on the legacy of Barack Obama. How could any sensible person — any patriot — vote for that?

Except none of those “facts” was true. The voters who believed them were voting for and against illusions.

Think about what that means: the effect was the same as falsifying ballots. It’s just that the falsification happened before the vote instead of after.

Put another way, it’s like voters had a choice between door number 1 and door number 2, but for many of them, the numbers had been switched: door 1 was actually door 2, and vice versa.

Certainly there were people who voted for Donald Trump based on a more or less accurate picture of reality. But huge numbers — far more than were needed to swing the election — were just plain wrong about the issues on which they based their votes.

Let’s take another look at the “facts” these voters believed in.

  1. According to a February, 2016 Gallup poll, only 49 percent of Americans thought the United States was the world’s top military power. In fact, as of 2016, the military budget of the United States was almost as high as those of the next 14 highest-spending countries — added together. The U.S. accounted for one-third of all the military spending in the world.
  2. According to a December, 2016 Public Policy Polling survey, 67% of Trump voters believed unemployment had increased during the Obama administration, and only 20 percent thought it had decreased. In fact, it had been cut in half, falling from more than 10 percent to below five percent. Some would argue that unemployment was actually worse than it looked, because the standard unemployment measure, known as U-3, doesn’t take into account people who have given up looking for work or who are marginally employed, such as those who have been forced to take part-time jobs. But the measure that does take them into account, U-6, had also fallen dramatically, from just over 17 percent to just over nine percent.
  3. The same PPP poll found that 60 percent of Trump voters thought the stock market had gone down under Obama. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was almost two and a half times higher at the end of Obama’s two terms than it was at the beginning. From the end of the Bush era slide, on March 6, 2009, the Dow more than tripled.
  4. Although the deficit had already been cut nearly in half by 2013, only 29 percent of Americans believed it was going down, and only 12 percent of Republicans did, according to a Pew poll at the end of that year.
  5. As of August, 2016, 52 percent of Republicans believed voter fraud was a serious problem, according to a Gallup poll. In fact, no credible study has ever found anything but minuscule levels of voter fraud.
Graph of U.S. violent crime showing steep downward trend since 1990

Graph by Statistica based on FBI data

Imagine if counterfeiting suddenly became legal. Say we asked people not to do it — but there would be no penalty if they did.

What would happen?

Simple: There would be an explosion of fake money. If people could buy things with currency worth nothing more than paper and some ink, many would, of course, do just that. Crooks would print up more and more counterfeit bills, which would start to take over from real money.

A venerable principle of economics explains why this happens. It’s named Gresham’s Law, after 16th century financier Sir Thomas Gresham.

The short version: Since sound money is expensive, and bad money is cheap, bad money proliferates and takes over the economy.

More recently, Gresham’s Law has been extended to information: Bad information drives out good, and for similar reasons.

In America in recent decades, an industry of information counterfeiters has sprung up, and it’s making a few, unprincipled people very rich, at the expense of everyone else.

And at the expense of democracy.

Bad money threatens the free market. But bad information threatens freedom itself. That’s because a vote is only as good as the information it’s based on. If your choices are based on illusions, what are they really worth?

Much of our population now votes, and makes other crucial decisions, based on bad information. Much of what they think they know about the world is untrue.

In effect, they live in a prison of lies, one whose walls they can’t even see.

When Everything You Know Is Wrong

  1. Our military is weak.
  2. Unemployment is rising.
  3. The stock market is falling.
  4. The deficit is exploding.
  5. Voter fraud is rampant.
  6. Crime is out of control.
  7. Many of the criminals are immigrants, flooding through our porous borders to rape and murder innocent Americans.
  8. Terrorists are coming the same way.

Given these terrifying facts, is it any wonder that Americans voted in 2016 for a candidate who promised to save us?

How could it have gone any other way? Hillary Clinton pledged to continue and build on the legacy of Barack Obama. How could any sensible person — any patriot — vote for that?

Except none of those “facts” was true. The voters who believed them were voting for and against illusions.

Think about what that means: the effect was the same as falsifying ballots. It’s just that the falsification happened before the vote instead of after.

Put another way, it’s like voters had a choice between door number 1 and door number 2, but for many of them, the numbers had been switched: door 1 was actually door 2, and vice versa.

Certainly there were people who voted for Donald Trump based on a more or less accurate picture of reality. But huge numbers — far more than were needed to swing the election — were just plain wrong about the issues on which they based their votes.

Let’s take another look at the “facts” these voters believed in.

  1. According to a February, 2016 Gallup poll, only 49 percent of Americans thought the United States was the world’s top military power. In fact, as of 2016, the military budget of the United States was almost as high as those of the next 14 highest-spending countries — added together. The U.S. accounted for one-third of all the military spending in the world.
  2. According to a December, 2016 Public Policy Polling survey, 67% of Trump voters believed unemployment had increased during the Obama administration, and only 20 percent thought it had decreased. In fact, it had been cut in half, falling from more than 10 percent to below five percent. Some would argue that unemployment was actually worse than it looked, because the standard unemployment measure, known as U-3, doesn’t take into account people who have given up looking for work or who are marginally employed, such as those who have been forced to take part-time jobs. But the measure that does take them into account, U-6, had also fallen dramatically, from just over 17 percent to just over nine percent.
  3. The same PPP poll found that 60 percent of Trump voters thought the stock market had gone down under Obama. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was almost two and a half times higher at the end of Obama’s two terms than it was at the beginning. From the end of the Bush era slide, on March 6, 2009, the Dow more than tripled.
  4. Although the deficit had already been cut nearly in half by 2013, only 29 percent of Americans believed it was going down, and only 12 percent of Republicans did, according to a Pew poll at the end of that year.
  5. As of August, 2016, 52 percent of Republicans believed voter fraud was a serious problem, according to a Gallup poll. In fact, no credible study has ever found anything but minuscule levels of voter fraud.
Graphs showing the difference between popular beliefs and correct facts on a range of topics

Graphs by the author based on sources noted

These are just some examples from the alt reality many Americans now inhabit. Among other false but popular beliefs that influenced voters in the 2016 election: Obama was a Kenyan born Muslim who was going to take away all our guns, FEMA planned concentration camps for conservatives, the U.S. military was going to invade Texas, and Hillary was the leader of a sex slavery ring run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant.

Since the election, most explanations of how Trump won it have focused on factors that might have accounted for, at most, a few percentage points each in state-by-state vote totals: interference by Russia and Wikileaks, Hillary’s emails and/or the media’s obsession with them, mistakes by Hillary’s campaign, disruptive comments by FBI Director James Comey, or the Democratic Party being too far right, too far left, or too disconnected from the white working class.

Some or all of these likely had an influence. But remember, Hillary lost by less than 78,000 votes [update: this replaces the earlier estimate of several hundred thousand votes with the final result] in three battleground states, while winning the popular vote overall.

Whatever the causes, her defeat was razor thin.

Now look again at the percentages in my eight examples: all the margins are in the tens of percentage points, and many represent strong majorities of the relevant voters.

That means that any of the most popular explanations for the election result shrinks to insignificance when compared with this one:

The misinformation industry threw our election.

How Lying Became a Multi-Billion Dollar Business

Believe it or not, there was a time when self-described journalists wouldn’t have been allowed to just make stuff up all day long without presenting opposing viewpoints. That time was before 1987, when the federal Fairness Doctrine was eliminated.

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted in 1949. It required broadcasters both to present important and controversial topics, and provide time for opposing viewpoints.

It was based on the idea that the public owned the airwaves. Broadcasters had licenses to use this public property, but not to abuse its owners by misleading them.

But that rule went away in 1987, as part of deregulation under the Reagan administration. Conservatives thought the Fairness Doctrine impinged on free speech, and that free market competition would take care of fairness.

Unfortunately, the effect was like removing all guarantees behind a currency.

Peddlers of information were now free to sell fiction as fact, like counterfeiters printing their own money. And just like counterfeit money, misinformation is really cheap to produce, and has a huge market.

Emotion sells. If you’re not required to tell the truth, you can just make up addictively provocative stuff, all day long. And since you don’t need to put any time or money into actual reporting or fact-checking, it costs you next to nothing to churn it out and rack up the revenues.

And what do you know, after 1987 right wing talk became the top commercial talk radio format in the U.S. Further deregulation made the format particularly lucrative, by allowing the formation of conglomerates like Clear Channel. They could afford to pay big syndication fees to the most popular hosts, led for many years by Rush Limbaugh, who got very rich by making his listeners very angry. Not surprisingly, Rush inspired imitators: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, and many more.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh photo by Icolas Shayko (Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

TV’s turn had to wait for the arrival of digital cable and satellite technologies, which brought a proliferation of channels, along with the need to fill them with content. That enabled Rupert Murdoch’s 1996 creation of Fox News, which quickly began its rise to number one among basic cable channels.

As with right wing talk radio, Fox isn’t really in the news business, but a news-like form of the entertainment business. Despite its (possibly deliberately) ironic slogan of “Fair and Balanced,” what Fox sells is sensation, with objective information playing a distinctly secondary role.

There are legitimate reporters at Fox. But the network’s cash cows are the heavily biased, highly provocative opinion shows, like Fox and Friends, Hannity, and the industry-leading O’Reilly Factor.

New technologies also enabled the right-wing web. The introduction of the graphical Mosaic browser in 1993, followed by easy site-building tools and the rise of cheap bandwidth, meant almost anyone could be a publisher. Soon enough, that came to include hot button-pushing “news” sites, from the Drudge Report, to InfoWars, to WorldNet Daily, to Breitbart, to who knows how many more.

There was money in all of it — a lot of money.

In 2016, Forbes magazine ranked Rush Limbaugh the world’s 10th highest-paid celebrity, with an estimated income of $79 million. His net worth is variously estimated at between $350 million and $500 million.

Fox News’ 2015 revenue was projected at $2.3 billion, and the 2016 number will no doubt turn out to have been even higher, given that Fox broke ratings records on the back of the most attention-grabbing election campaign ever. Forbes estimates the net worth of Rupert Murdoch, who also owns other major media properties, at $13 billion.

In 2012, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget estimated that the Drudge Report was earning $50,000 a day, and that founder Matt Drudge must be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Blodget made this startling comparison:

In short, the Drudge Report is almost as big a digital media property as The New York Times.

That’s absolutely staggering.

Why?

Because The New York Times is produced by ~1,200 journalists. The Drudge Report is produced by one.

Blodget is exaggerating a bit here: earlier in his article he estimates the total Drudge staff at “maybe three.”

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Here’s the Scam That Makes Conservatives Believe the Mainstream Media Is Lying

[Also published at Huffington Post.] 

Recently a Facebook friend shared this outrage-inducing headline: BREAKING: Massive Illegal Immigrant Welfare Fraud Discovered.

My first reaction was, “Obviously fake news.” The source was something called WorldNewsPolitics.com, a website with no masthead, no physical address, and a name that doesn’t quite make sense.

But I took the trouble to check the story out, and I discovered that in fact it was more insidious than fake news: it’s an extremely misleading report of something that actually happened.

It’s a scam, built on just the barest amount of accuracy needed to survive a quick click-through. The goal is to fool the unwary into believing “This is truth the mainstream media is trying to keep from me.”

Here’s how it works, step by step.

  1. If you go to the “Immigrant Welfare Fraud” story, you’ll find it begins with this:

The Washington Free Beacon is reporting a breaking story that will have every American taxpayer furious. The Social Security Administration conducted a routine audit and discovered it paid $1 billion in benefits to individuals who did not have a Social Security Number (SSN).

Sounds outrageous, right? Why haven’t you heard of this in the mainstream media — are they trying to hide it? If you do a web search, what do you know? You get pages and pages of results — but only on right-wing sites.

Here’s an excerpt from what I found on Google:

Welfare fraud Google results

Google search results

Proof! Only the right-wing media tells you the truth, while the lying MSM covers it up!

Except…

  1. As you can see from the WordNewsPolitics story’s first few words, it’s actually a rewrite of an item from the Washington Free Beacon, a slightly more respectable publication — for example, you can find out who the Beacon’s editors and writers are. If you go to the Beacon’s story, you’ll discover that it’s a little less inflammatory, though still dramatic:

Feds Paid $1 Billion in Social Security Benefits to Individuals Without a SSN

Based on the Beacon’s headline, we don’t know, despite what WorldNewsPolitics asserts, that these individuals were illegal immigrants, and we don’t know they committed welfare fraud. We’re only told that the federal government paid social security benefits to some people who didn’t have social security numbers. And in fact if we read the story, we find that we don’t even know that. All we know is that the numbers weren’t on file.

  1. From the Beacon story, we can click a link to the original source of the information: the Social Security Administration itself, which recently released an audit of its own practices. That audit found that not $1 billion but about $853 million (which the Beacon rounds up to $1 billion) was paid out to people “who do not have a social security number in the Social Security Administration’s payment records.” And it was paid out not all at once but over a period of 12 years, between 2004 and 2016.
  2. Still, $853 million sounds like a lot of money. But how much is it in context?

Well, I did the math, using figures from ssa.gov for the years in question (see below*). Hundreds of billions of dollars in social security benefits are paid out every year. If $853 million of them may have been misdirected — and that is not clear, since all we know is that the SSNs weren’t on file — it would amount to an error rate of less than 1/100 of one percent.

Of course it would be better to have no errors at all. But given how unlikely it is that any massive system will ever have an error rate of zero, 1/100 of one percent doesn’t seem quite so bad.

5. Now let’s ask ourselves how we know about all this. Is it the result of hard-hitting investigative work by the right-wing media?

No, we know because the government audited itself and transparently reported the results. This is what we want to see the government doing — searching for waste and trying to eliminate it.

We’re a long way from “Massive Illegal Immigrant Welfare Fraud,” aren’t we?

6. But wait, there’s more. Misleading stories like this one appear daily, and spread almost instantaneously, with very similar versions showing up all over the right wing media.

That’s no accident. There’s a system in place for making it happen, like sending marching orders to a waiting army.

To see how that works, let’s look in detail at the link to the Washington Free Beacon story that we found in the WorldNewsPolitics story:

http://freebeacon.com/issues/feds-paid-1-billion-social-security-benefits-individuals-without-ssn/?utm_source=Freedom+Mail&utm_campaign=f181a5137d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_02_21&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b5e6e0e9ea-f181a5137d-46179017

In particular, notice the part of the url beginning with this:

?utm_source=Freedom+Mail

This is what’s known as a campaign tag. It and other tags that follow it tell us that the source of this link was an email campaign from “Freedom Mail.” I’m guessing that refers to this conservative email list, identified in 2010 by Ben Smith of Politico:

…a secret (which strikes me as misguided, but harmless) list of center-right foreign policy writers and thinkers called Freedom Mail.

Whether or not this actually is the same Freedom Mail as the one behind the “illegal immigrant welfare fraud” campaign, the mechanism is the same across multiple interest groups and their email lists. Operatives comb the news each day for stories they can exaggerate, distort, and blast out to eager media outlets who are more interested in ideology than truth.

The supposed immigrant crime wave in Sweden? Congressional town hall protesters supposedly being paid?

Products of the same system.

It’s the system that gives right-wing media consumers much of their “news” every day. It explains why their angry social media posts and forum comments tend to contain the same talking points, and why those comments are so badly misinformed.

Illustration showing how false news spreads

Illustration by the author

This is not to say there’s no one on the left pushing stories, many of which are also biased, though all such activity on the left is dwarfed by what’s happening on the right.

But legitimate journalists won’t report anything just because it shows up in an email from an advocacy group. The mainstream media checks facts — that’s what “mainstream” means.

The trouble is there’s a whole industry of right-wing media outlets, ranging from biased to outright fake, who are quite happy to give the fact-checking a pass.

And now you know why right-wingers keep seeing stories in right-wing media that they don’t find in the mainstream media.

It isn’t because the MSM is trying hide the truth.

It’s because those stories are crap.

And the people who believe them? They’re being played for suckers.

___________________

* Using figures from the Social Security Administration’s annual Fast Facts reports:

Total payments, 2004 – 2016: $9,100,155,400,000

Possibly misdirected payments: $853,000,000

Possibly misdirected payments, percentage: .0094%

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7 Tips for Telling Real News from Fake

Photo of people in a waiting room reading various news sources.

Photo: iStock

[Also published at Huffington Post.] I’ve been hearing a lot lately from people who feel overwhelmed by all the drastically different news narratives fighting for their attention — especially, of course, the ones about Donald Trump.

Real news? Fake news? How do you tell the difference?

Here’s a seven-point checklist of the most essential things to know.

1. Be skeptical. There’s an old saying in journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Reporters are supposed to look hard at what they think they know, and so should their audience. Reputable news outlets “show their work,” so you can see how they came to their conclusions. Are the sources solid? Does the logic makes sense? (More on this below.)

2. If the story is sensational, be more skeptical. Amazing things are amazing for a reason: they don’t happen very often. There are a lot more amazing stories in the world — because they make money — than there are amazing things that actually happened. This is why serious news sources tend to be less exciting to read than tabloids are. Memorize or bookmark these fact-checking sites:

3. If the story reinforces what you already believe, be more skeptical. We all suffer from confirmation bias, the tendency to accept information that supports our beliefs, and ignore or reject information that doesn’t. If you want accurate information instead of just flattery, you’re going to have to fight your own confirmation bias. And please, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that all news you don’t like is “fake.” (More on this below, too.)

4. Check the sources. The sources of a story are like the foundation of a building: if they’re not solid, the whole thing is likely to collapse. Sources should be objective and as close to the original information as possible. So, for example, a respected, independent scientific research organization is more credible than a partisan think tank, and still more credible than a random person with an opinion.

There should be more than one source, unless the story is an interview or there is something exceptional about what this source has to say. Here’s part of the Reuters guidelines on sources, which are typical of those used by all credible news outlets:

You must source every statement in every story unless it is an established fact or is information clearly in the public domain, such as court documents or in instances when the reporter, photographer or camera operator was on the scene.

Adherence to this standard is the reason credible reporters don’t just assert things, like “Unemployment is down.” Instead, they’ll write “Unemployment has fallen to 4.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Beware of attempts to fool you with sources that look credible, but aren’t. These include organizations that appear to be government agencies, respected research institutions, or major news organizations, but aren’t. Look them up. While even the best sources can make mistakes, there’s usually a good reason for a good reputation.

5. Check the logic. Not only should the facts of the story be solid, so should the way they’re connected. Let’s say you hear that a person wearing sneakers has robbed a bank. Does this mean all sneaker-wearers are probably bank robbers? Of course not.

If a scientific study found that many bank robbers do wear sneakers, then we’d at least know there’s a correlation of some kind. But we still wouldn’t know that wearing sneakers means someone is likely to be a crook. It could just be that robbers like to be able to run fast. All of this would need to be checked out.

It may be easy to see the problem with jumping to conclusions about sneaker wearers, but this kind of illogic is common in less-than-credible news outlets, and often goes unchallenged by consumers. For example, because some immigrants commit crimes, many people conclude that immigrants are more dangerous, and some news outlets encourage that belief. But the logic doesn’t follow, and when we check the facts, we find that first generation immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans do.

Now, here’s a test. Do you yourself believe that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes? Then please be aware that your own confirmation bias makes you more likely to accept what I just said, on faith. Please check — using credible, objective sources, not just the ones who always tell you what you want to hear — to see for yourself.

And the same if you still believe immigrants are more likely to be criminals: be aware that your confirmation bias makes you more likely to reject what I’m saying. Check for yourself — again, using credible, objective sources, not just the ones who always tell you what you want to hear.

6. Understand what you’re looking at. The difference between reliable and unreliable isn’t always black and white. There are different kinds of content that meet, or fail to meet, different kinds of standards:

Hard news. This is just the facts. For example: “A home on 13th St. suffered extensive damage last night after a 30-foot elm tree was blown over by 60 mph winds.”

Opinion. This may be an editorial, an op-ed (in newspapers, this is opinion that appears on the page opposite the editorial page), or a blog post. It’s not a problem if it’s biased — that’s what opinion means. Many good newspapers have a clear bias on their editorial pages, but give straight reporting on their news pages. Reputable opinion writers will base their arguments on verifiable facts, because opinion isn’t an excuse to make things up. You should feel confident that you can agree or disagree without worrying about being misled.

Feature story. This is softer, interpretive coverage of a story or people, exploring meaning and emotion. For example: “Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.” That’s the opening sentence of one of the most famous feature stories of all, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese. Although a feature story is subjective, all facts it cites should be objectively true (unless it’s clear the writer is playing with the boundaries between fact and fiction, the way Hunter S. Thompson did, for example).

Biased, but still valid, news. Since reporters are humans, it’s impossible for any of them to be 100 percent bias free — even our story about the tree hitting the house showed more concern for the house than for the tree. But some outlets report hard news from a biased perspective. As long as they’re careful with facts and logic, such outlets can be worth consulting — especially if they challenge your own biases.

News that’s so biased it’s misleading. To support their in-house bias, some outlets twist facts and logic so much that they do more harm than good. This describes some other tabloids.

Fake news. Fake news is just made up from thin air.

7. Understand “Who benefits?” This is a technique, known by its Latin translation of cui bono, used by investigators. They find suspects by identifying who benefits from the crime.

It can help you decide whether news is real or fake.

Is the mainstream media fake news, the way we hear so often lately? No, and the charge is irresponsible, because it undermines the legitimacy of the free press, which is a foundation of democracy. What “mainstream” means is commitment to traditional standards of accuracy. Each mainstream outlet has strict ethical standards (for example, these) and will quickly discipline or fire reporters who violate them.

By far, most mainstream journalists, whatever their shortcomings, want to meet those standards. They got into the business in the first place because they wanted to discover the truth.

Even if you find that hard to believe (in my experience, it’s true), consider this: whatever their shortcomings may be, mainstream media companies benefit by getting the facts right, not wrong. Objectivity in journalism grew out of the business opportunity of selling content to all kinds of readers, conservative and liberal, many of whom make important decisions based on the accuracy of what they get from the mainstream news, and wouldn’t be happy to learn it was fake. Meanwhile, advertisers in mainstream media are there because they want to reach a large audience. They have no interest in seeing some of it turned off by partisan coverage.

Some less reputable media companies, though, make money a different way: by selling not facts, but sensation. They’re aiming to catch the attention of gullible people who are swayed by emotion, and they tend to attract advertisers who like that kind of customer.

Remember tip 2: If the story is sensational, be more skeptical.

So if you hear someone claim the mainstream media is fake, ask yourself, ”Who benefits from making me believe that?”

Answer: people who want to get away with stuff.

So who can you trust?

I won’t try to list all the credible news outlets (although if I did, this one would make the cut, so please come back some time).

But a good place to start is with the two most widely respected: the New York Times and the Washington Post. Neither is perfect, of course — remember: humans — but both are excellent. They originate much of the news you hear each day, they have enough reporters to cover a wide range of topics in depth, and they are home to some of the most influential opinion writers from across the political spectrum.

How do you know I’m steering you straight? You can now check for yourself — and I hope you will.

I’ll leave you with a thought from Thomas Jefferson, who, despite his own problems with the press, was one of its greatest champions:

No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions. (Letter to Judge John Tyler Washington, June 28, 1804.)

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Americans Fear Refugees Because We’re Bad At Math

Add this to the list of disturbing reasons for America’s panic over refugees: fewer and fewer of us can do the basic math of calculating the true risk.

But really, it’s not that hard — and understanding it is crucial to avoiding being conned.

Here it is, made as easy as I know how.

Lightning bolt over Mojave Desert

Photo: Jessie Eastland via Wikimedia Commons

1. Every year, as reported by the libertarian Cato Institute, Americans have about a one in 14,000 chance of being murdered.

2. The odds of being killed by a terrorist — who by the way is likely to be homegrown — are one in 3.6 million. This alone should suggest to you that the threat of terrorism is being overplayed — you’re three and a half times more likely to be struck by lightning.

3. But now let’s look at the risk of being killed by a refugee. The odds are… one in 3.6 billion. That means you are three and half thousand times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a refugee. Contrary to what our demagogue-in-chief wants you to believe, refugees are already very carefully screened.

Do you still think abandoning our values, giving ISIS a recruiting bonanza, and demoralizing our Muslim military allies (all results of banning refugees) is worth it?

Then I assume you plan never, ever to leave your house again, for fear of the far greater risk you face of being struck by lightning.

Ah, some say, but any risk is too much. We should do whatever it takes to stop even one death (never mind that zero Americans have been killed by refugees since 1975).

OK, this makes no sense already, given what I just laid out. Plus, considering we’re supposed to be the Home of the Brave, it seems awfully, well… non-brave.

But I hear it a lot, so on we go.

This argument is an example of negativity bias: we fear negative consequences so much that it clouds our judgment. This is why, even though seat belts greatly increase the odds of surviving an auto accident, some people still refuse to wear them. They can’t stand the thought they might have been one of the tiny number of people who make it out alive because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt.

There’s no other way around it, though: these people are choosing a much lower chance of survival. It’s impossible to know ahead of time whether this might have been that rare fluke accident. So the only smart choice is the one with (much) better odds.

It’s the same with admitting refugees to the United States. Fear wants us to focus on the minuscule chance one of them will be a terrorist (and dumb enough to go through the long refugee screening process before coming here).

But adding refugees actually makes each of us safer: as we add more people who are less likely to be terrorists, each of us has lower odds of encountering a terrorist.

Nine green marbles and one red one with the face of a troll

Illustration by author, emoji by EmojiOne (open source)

You can picture it like this. Let’s say you have 100 marbles in a jar: 90 green ones and 10 red ones, mixed together. If you reach in, you have a 10 in 100 chance of getting a red marble, right? Now add another 100 marbles, but this time 99 green and one red. Your odds of getting a red marble are now lower: 11 in 200, which is about one in 18.

Even though you added a red marble, your odds of getting a red marble went down. It’s the same with adding refugees to the US population, except that the odds are, year after year after year, none of them would be a red marble.

Now I expect some will still argue that if even one refugee ever kills one American, that’s an American who otherwise wouldn’t have died — ban all refugees! Well first, if we followed that absolutist logic, we’d have to prevent anyone at all from coming into the United States.

I’m OK with that, too, some will say.

Well, we’d also have to stop Americans from crossing state lines: anyone from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona — all the way to Wyoming — is far more likely to kill you than a refugee is. Come to think of it, by this logic maybe we should stop Americans from having babies, or just require that they be raised in captivity. After all, every addition to the population has a small chance of turning out to be a killer, and even one is too many, right?

But we don’t need to resort to this reductio ad absurdum. One last time, let’s just do the arithmetic.

In exchange for avoiding the extremely small risk from refugees, a ban helps ISIS recruit actual terrorists, while pushing away allies and weakening our ability to fight.

You add a tiny bit of safety, but take away a lot. That’s a bad deal, as someone might say.

And note what’s missing from this equation: our values. It assumes that preserving them is worth nothing at all.

A ban against refugees, in America?

Any way you look at it, it’s the wrong answer.

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Is Bannon Just “Defending American Culture?” Without Immigration, It Wouldn’t Exist

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Some readers have challenged my assertion that Steve Bannon is an ethnic nationalist, on the premise that Bannon is just defending the Judeo-Christian culture that has helped make America what it is.

I maintain that his ethnic nationalism is proven by his own words and actions.

But I also want to push back on the popular argument that America’s culture is both essentially Judeo-Christian and needs to be defended from foreign influences. American culture is of great value, but this view of it is ahistorical, and encourages the same intolerance that drives ethnic nationalism.

Statue of Liberty at night

Photo by 0X010C via Wikimedia Commons

To argue for it is to dispute that America was founded on Enlightenment reason and religious tolerance. That means you have to fight the founders themselves. Here’s Thomas Jefferson, who with James Madison led the writing of the First Amendment:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State. (Letter to the Danbury Baptists.)

That “wall of separation” has been cited in Supreme Court rulings on church and state ever since.

That’s not to say that Judeo-Christian values didn’t inform American culture. Of course they did. For example: Old Testament teachings on justice and the law, and Jesus’ teachings on equality and caring for each other — especially strangers.

But centuries of immigration have shown that American culture can be, and is, adopted by anyone who believes in American democracy, whether or not they’re Christians or Jews. (Not that it looks likely Jews would really be given equal status by Bannon, who propounds a distorted version of the Church Militant.)

And there’s more to it than that. Immigrants don’t just assimilate into our culture, they create it.

Without immigrants, there is no American culture.

For example, without African-Americans (whose original immigration was actually an abduction), our music, art, literature, drama, dance, and movies would be very, very different. Even country and bluegrass music — identified so strongly with people of white, Northern European origin — wouldn’t exist without the blues.

So it is with the contributions of cultures from all over the world. The addition of new and different people has continually renewed American culture, making it what it is — a big part of which, in this future-facing land, is what it will be.

If we think of the founding of America as a statement, its subject was Equality.

Its predicate is the history of a nation where all are welcome who swear allegiance to the Constitution.

The Constitution is our true creed.

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President Bannon Wants to Make America an Ethnic Homeland

[Also published at Huffington Post.] As reporters dig into Steve Bannon’s past and present, it’s becoming clear that he’s perfectly aware we face virtually no threat from the carefully vetted refugees his Executive Order turns away, over the signature of his protegé Donald Trump.

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon, 2010. Photo by Don Irvine (Creative Commons)

Bannon sees the real threat not as terrorist attacks, but as the dilution of ethnic identity. From USA Today:

“These are not Jeffersonian democrats,” he said of immigrants to Europe from Muslim majority countries in April of last year. “These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming up here.”

“To be brutally frank, I mean Christianity is dying in Europe, and Islam is on the rise,” he said in an interview in January 2016 with a Breitbart reporter.

During an interview in February 2016, Bannon expressed alarm about China and Islam…. “You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian West is on the retreat.”

Bannon, impresario of the alt-right hub Breibart, is an ethnic nationalist. He believes American culture is inherently Christian, and that it is bound to the “DNA” of Europeans.

That belief is inherently Un-American — because “American,” unlike “Chinese,” “German,” “Italian,” “Russian,” or so many others, has never been an ethnic identity.

You’re not an American because you’re a member of a tribe. You’re an American because you’re loyal to the Constitution.

That’s it. That’s the point.

That’s the miracle that generations of Americans, from all over the world, have built, and have fought and died to defend. Anyone who supports what Bannon is trying to do is betraying that legacy of sacrifice, and betraying what truly makes America great.

Many who do support Bannon are sure they’re not bigots — they just value the culture that gave us what we have, and think it’s worth preserving. Of course it is. But that culture isn’t found in skin color, headgear, or religious observance. It’s found in hearts, inspired by a shared idea. E Pluribus Unum.

America is not an ethnic homeland, it’s that idea. It’s precious, powerful idea —but not an indestructible one.

We must defend it.

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Whatever Happened to Sharia Law? And Other Questions for Right Wing Media Fans

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Whatever happened to declaring Sharia law? Obama’s almost done, and it’s really beginning to look like he may not get around to it.

And how is he going to fit in taking our guns away? Jan. 20 will be here before you know it; he’s really gonna have to hustle.

Now that I think of it, where are the death panels? We were guaranteed death panels as part of Obamacare. So far they can’t seem to get organized.

Whatever happened to Sharia law?

And when do we get going on the runaway inflation? It’s been stuck at historically low levels since 2008.

And the soaring unemployment? That hasn’t showed up either — instead we got the longest job creation streak in history, unemployment cut in half, and now wages are rising. Sheesh.

And the New Black Panthers? Two of them showed up outside a polling place in Philadelphia for a few hours in 2008, and that was that. They were supposed to be running the White House with help from the Muslim Brotherhood — what the heck happened there?

Has Common Core made any progress in turning all our kids gay?

When exactly do we get taken over by the UN?

Anyone seen the FEMA concentration camps?

And how come the US Army hasn’t got around to invading Texas? When do we use all those tunnels under Walmarts? Talk about a snafu.

You know, as hard as it is to imagine…

It’s almost like the right wing media was full of it.

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Putin Wins Simply by Showing That a Clown Can Be Elected President of the United States

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Is our next president a Russian agent? Because of Donald Trump’s relentless shilling for Vladimir Putin, that once unthinkable question is being asked seriously by major news outlets.

To at least some degree, the answer, obviously, is yes. An agent is someone who acts on behalf of another, and wittingly or not, Trump does exactly that for Russia.

Photo of Donald Trump

Donald Trump, Aug. 19, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)

But looked at from Putin’s point of view, it hardly matters what Trump might or might not be up to.

Because if Putin’s goal is to delegitimize American democracy, he’s already won.

How better to delegitimize democracy than by showing that an utter clown can be elected president of the United States?

Trump doesn’t have to do much more of anything for Putin in order to be counted as one of the most successful Russian agents ever.

All he has to do, starting January 20, is show up for work every day.



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The 2 Reasons This Is the 1 Time We Needed the Electoral College

(Also published at Huffington Post.) I could hardly have been more shocked and disappointed that Donald Trump won the election. But I strongly opposed the idea of the Electoral College overturning the results.

Certainly Trump seemed to fail the fundamental test defined by Electoral College inventor Alexander Hamilton: he was unqualified.

[The Electoral College process] affords a moral certainty,: that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union….” (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper 68)

Almost sounds like Hamilton and Trump had already met.

But democracy means you have to live with other people’s opinions, and that would usually include their opinions of what “qualified” means.

But then came the deal breakers — and my support for the Hamilton Electors:

  1. Corruption.
  2. Foreign control.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull, 1806 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Here’s what else Hamilton warned about:

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?

Consider — and I mean really, think about the fact that we’re actually facing these things:

1. Trump refuses to release his tax returns, refuses to divest himself of his global business interests, and insists on involving his children in both his businesses and the business of government. Foreign governments that want to corrupt our government have only to do favors for one or more of Trump’s businesses or children. Foreign governments are already doing that. And that means that Trump has corrupted the White House before he has even moved in. Furthermore, he is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which means he will be (or should be) vulnerable to impeachment the day he takes office.

2. Trump continues to display a bizarre and frightening loyalty to Russia’s thuggish autocrat, in opposition to America’s national interests. We know that:

  • Russia waged a cyber warfare attack on our election in favor of Trump.
  • Trump encouraged them to do it, and repeatedly exploited it during his campaign.
  • Trump hired as his former campaign manager a person with deep ties to the previous Russian puppet regime in Ukraine, and continues to consult with him.
  • Trump’s campaign removed language from the Republican platform calling for the arming of Ukrainians resisting Russia’s invasion.
  • Trump has steadfastly praised Russia’s thuggish, murdering autocrat while aggressively rejecting the U.S. intelligence community for its consensus finding Vladimir Putin hacked our election.
  • Trump’s son Donald has said this of the Trump Organization’s deep ties to Russia: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” And remember, this Organization has repeatedly gone bankrupt, and has trouble getting loans.
  • And see point 1: Trump refuses to do the things that might, possibly, clear all this up.

If Trump could clear all this up, I’d support the Electoral College playing its traditional role, and simply ratifying the election result, no matter how awful I think it is.

But Trump won’t clear all this up.

And as long as that’s true, he isn’t just unqualified.

He’s a threat to democracy.

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Should Real News Be a Utility, Like Water and Electricity?

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Like people in towns across America, I’m watching my local newspapers die.

Every few months, it seems, they lay off more staff, while announcing a new digital initiative that’s somehow supposed to make up for the fact that they just can’t afford to report the news any more.

No one wants to pay for it.

After all, look at all the “content” we can get for free, much of which looks like news.

The trouble is, though, so much of it isn’t. Real news can’t be created by digital magic. It requires the time-consuming work of humans — trained ones — digging into what’s going on, weighing competing versions of the truth, and giving the rest of us their best version.

It’s never perfect, and sometimes it’s very far short of that. But it’s so much better than any alternative. Democracy literally depends on it, as Thomas Jefferson said:

The way to prevent [errors] of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…

Do not be too severe upon the people’s errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I and Congress and assemblies, judges, and governors, shall all become wolves.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

But in our modern, digital world, news doesn’t pay, and so, especially at the local level, it’s going away.

That could be seen as good news for people like me, whose job it is to try to get stories into the media. With fewer reporters in the way, that’s getting easier all the time. More and more papers will run a well-written press release unedited.

But I hate it. I don’t want an easier job, if it comes at the expense of a functioning democracy.

To save democracy, we must save news. We can start with local news, which is what matters most to most people (nationally, we have some government funding of public broadcasting, but it’s unlikely we’ll see that expand any time soon).

I have an idea: why not make local news a utility? Charge a small user fee to all the people in a city or county who benefit from more honest institutions – and that’s everybody, of course. The money collected would fund an independent news utility, charged with doing what healthy newspapers always did: holding the powerful accountable.

If this only funded one such organization per locality, that wouldn’t be as good as what we used to have: cities often had several daily papers. But it would be a lot better than what we’re heading towards in city after city — no newspaper worthy of the name.

What about TV news? That business is struggling too, but it’s still better off than newspapers are. And as TV has traditionally done with newspapers, it could leverage the original reporting done by the news utility.

We can’t do without clean water or reliable electricity. Maybe it’s finally time to recognize that the same is true of accurate information.

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