Saturday, December 17, 2016

Deceit, misdirection, and obfuscation

This is fascinating.

As a consequence of the unexpected loss of their candidate to Donald Trump, the mainstream media has been in overdrive coming up with increasingly preposterous reasons for why that occurred. Regret and remorse are one thing, but the response has become spectacularly unhinged.

All of the responses are laughable and many of them are irresponsible. Some almost dangerous. The one that has most irritated me has been the brouhaha over "Fake News." First, there is little evidence that any news materially changes peoples opinions other than solidifying them in their preconceptions. There is certainly no evidence that semi-mythical sources of "fake news" proliferated at the end of the campaign and had a measurable effect. It is a claim with no empirical evidence.

More importantly, this smacks so clearly of totalitarianism and a repudiation of our cultural and constitutional commitment to freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas. It is repulsive to see so many mainstream media outlets trying to claim that their product is real news while the news product from others with whom they disagree is "fake news." It is evidence of either willful ignorance, ideological blindness, or venal commercial interest.

Beyond all that, there is the interesting epistemological exercise of identifying "fake news." It is in this context that I read Now you can fact-check Trump’s tweets — in the tweets themselves by Philip Bump. His own blinders seem to preclude him seeing that he comes across as a democratic operative with a byline. But it also highlights the nitpicking and linguistic gymnastics that these advocates have to indulge in.

Take this tweet as an example.


Click to enlarge

Donald Trump's claim is "Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?"

The interesting thing here is how much information can be conveyed within the constraints of 147 characters.

How might a person understand Trump's claim. Donna Brazile was, until she resigned in disgrace, the temporary head of the DNC. The DNC was hacked for their e-mails (or the emails were leaked, it is still not clear). The e-mails did reveal extensive wrong-doing on the part of various members of the DNC and the establishment. Brazile had, earlier in the campaign before she became interim head of the DNC, shared CNN questions with the candidate she supported, Hillary Clinton. Brazile almost certainly had a nondisclosure agreement precluding her from sharing the confidential questions.

So where are the factual weaknesses in this 136 character tweet?
1) Probably should have made clear that Brazile was head of the DNC after the occasion when she shared the confidential questions from CNN with Clinton.

2) Should have provided evidence that Brazile had a non-disclosure agreement with CNN that precluded her from sharing the questions with any campaign members.
Of these two, I see only the second as material. Does Trump know that Brazile had a nondisclosure agreement? Certainly, that is a standard and routine clause in handling sensitive data. His statement that she "illegally" shared is true if she was subject to a non-disclosure agreement which I suspect most people assume she was. If, for whatever reason, she had not agreed to non-disclosure, then shame on CNN. However, in terms of the substance of Trumps tweet, it becomes a marginal semantic issue. Without a non-disclosure agreement (or its equivalent), then it would be more correct to say that she "immorally" shared, or "inappropriately" shared, or even "she breached everyone's trust by sharing."

From this man-in-the-street perspective, there is nothing "fake" about Trump's tweet, and certainly not within the constraints of 147 characters. A little more clarity and specificity would have been nice but the tweet gets to the substance of what most people would consider the issue - a senior DNC insider and political ally of Clinton's breached convention (and maybe her legal contract) by inappropriately sharing confidential information in order to privilege and advantage Clinton in a debate. That is a serious allegation and it is supported by the publicly available information.

Now Bump wants to claim that there is something wrong with these facts and has built a chrome extension to recast Trumps tweet. What is the substance? Bump's claim is that:

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He seems to consider three things important in judging the appropriateness of Brazile's actions.
1) Brazile leaked the questions before she became temporary DNC leader.

2) Brazile was not obligated to maintain the confidentiality of the questions.

3) The possibility that the hack revealing the illegal and inappropriate insider actions might have (but not yet determined) originated with someone in Russia.
To someone not in the inner circles of incestuous power and intrigue, these seem picayune at best.

If you commit a wrongful act, it is wrong regardless of your position. Granted it might take on greater salience, but the wrongfulness remains as the foundational issue. A Principal of a school lying about his educational credentials and a student in that school lying on their college application have both lied. The lying is the issue even though we might (would that it were true) accord greater consequence and accountability to the Principal than to the student. Thus the distinction about when Brazile committed her transgression is of less importance than simply having committed it.

Whether Brazile was contractually bound not to reveal the questions is the most salient issue. Certainly, everyone assumes she would have been so bound. Bump merely asserts that she had no such contractual obligation and therefore there was nothing illegal. That seems improbable but it awaits confirmation. You cannot simply assert your way to Truth in an argument.

Finally, the issue of Russia is a classic logical fallacy, a non sequitur. In judging Clinton and Brazile's actions, it doesn't matter who revealed the wrong-doing. It doesn't matter whether the evidence emerges because of free-lance Romanian hacking, state sponsored Russian hacking, or whether it was a disgruntled DNC insider as Wikileaks insists. Bump's flourish is also a standard rhetorical strategy of misdirection.

So what are we left with? It appears that Trump's tweet is materially accurate. He could have clarified timing of Brazile's position but that wouldn't change the substance of the charge. He could have provided evidence of a confidentiality contract, but it is reasonable to assume that there was one. His claim seems, on balance completely accurate.

Bump's Chrome extension does nothing but introduce obfuscation. It works if you already want to believe that nothing wrong occurred but it does not actually refute anything in Trump's claim. It implicitly acknowledges that Brazile leaked the questions. It assumes that, against standard conventions, there was no confidentiality contract. It makes a misdirecting and unsubstantiated claim about who might have been responsible for shining light on the DNC misdeeds.

No wonder no one trusts the press. Even their fake news strategy is based on deceit, misdirection, and obfuscation.

As if to cement this negative impression, Bump offers a second example.

Click to enlarge.

Trump makes three claims.
1) His electoral victory of 306 to 232 represents a landslide.

2) That there were millions of people who voted illegally.

3) That if you subtract those who voted illegally, Trump would have a popular vote majority as well.
I certainly think Trump is on weaker ground here but when we are dealing with facts, Bump is in an even weaker position.

Bump's fact-check response to the three claims is:
1) 306 to 232 doesn't constitute a landslide.

2) "There is absolutely no evidence that there were a significant number of votes cast illegally."
The claim that 306 to 232 constitutes a landslide is not fact checkable. It is an opinion. For Bump to assert that Trump "did not win a landslide in any sense" is simply untrue. I agree with Bump that I would not characterize 306 to 232 as a landslide. A "commanding victory" perhaps. A "solid victory" perhaps. But that's me. The fact is that Trump received 57% of the electoral votes, or, alternatively, he received 32% more electoral votes than Clinton.

I am sure that at least some people might judge that as a landslide. Regardless, the claim rests on an opinion as to what constitutes a landslide and therefore is not capable of being determined as True or False. If Bump had claimed that Trump's characterization of 306 to 232 was disputable, Bump would be on firm ground. However, Bump destroys his position by claiming that there was no way in any sense to claim that 306 to 232 is a landslide. Bump makes his own claim false.

Similarly, Bump overreaches with the claim that "There is absolutely no evidence that there were a significant number of votes cast illegally." 136 million people voted. At least some illegal votes were cast. Were there hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of illegal votes? I have no idea but I am pretty confident that there was some material number of illegal votes given that many states operate substantially on the honor system in terms of voting and given that we have video recording of political operatives bragging about how they increase illegal voting.

But for Bump to claim that there is absolutely no evidence is absurd. Given that 37% of Detroit's precincts recorded more votes than there were voters, and that 95% of the votes went to one candidate, there's more than enough real evidence to suggest that there could have been large-scale illegal voting. How widespread it might have been is a different question.

Between these two examples we have zero evidence of the Chrome extension serving as a fact-checking exercise. What the extension does is give an opportunity for Bump to introduce his opinion to others, not address anything that is factual.

My interpretation is that Trump is circumventing the mainstream media completely by his tweets, his dominating press conferences and by his rallies. Fact checking and fake news allegations are coming across as the traditional mainstream media insisting on their relevancy and grasping at trying to control the narrative which is slipping away from them. Paradoxically, their actions, such as with this Chrome fact-checking extension seem more likely to discredit them further.

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