I’ve been watching the baubleheads on the networks discuss the Mueller report, and I’m disappointed. From the left, cries for impeachment. From the right, claims of exoneration. And from the center, a wary appraisal – President Trump was never going to charged with obstruction, the Justice Department doesn’t, as a policy matter, indict sitting presidents.
Political operatives are murmuring: to impeach, or not, that is the question. How will it all effect the 2020 election?
This is white noise, sound and fury signifying nothing.
The real significance of the report is in its redactions, and its refusal to publicize certain material for fear such disclosure would harm ongoing investigations.
These redactions – large, blacked-out sections of text -- are particularly evident in the section describing the investigation of Russian use of social media to manipulate the 2016 elections and to sow discord in the United States. Do Black Lives Matter? Da or nyet, depending on whose pressing your buttons.
To date, I’ve not seen any of the talking heads spend any real time on the social media section. For my money, this is where the action is. Presidents come and go, and political jaw-snapping is a sport for the political leisure class. The rest of us live in a world bounded by our immediate fears, hopes and expectations. We’re all dancing to algorithmic tunes set by others.
So what does Mueller’s report have to say about social media?
The Russians, acting through the Internet Research Agency, IRA, have been busy recruiting trolls in the United States. As described in the heavily redacted page 18 of the report – all that is not blacked out is footnote 28: “The term ‘troll’ refers to internet users – in this context, paid operatives – who post inflammatory or otherwise disruptive content on social media or other websites.”
An example of the IRA’s use of these paid operatives: “Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary…” I can’t help but wonder whether Pizzagate was the brainchild of some IRA apparatchik.
The IRA relied heavily on Facebook and Twitter to influence internet users. According to the report, a Facebook executive admitted in testimony before Congress that 470 IRA-controlled accounts posted some 80,000 messages from January 2015 through August 2017, reaching as many as 123 million Facebook users. The report cites a Twitter spokesman’s statement that acknowledges as many as 3,814 IRA-controlled Twitter accounts and 1.4 million Twitter users in contact with IRA-controlled accounts.
The report discusses the use of bots, devices that automatically transmit messages, clogging the internet with chatter – hate multiplied by the mad frenzy of the digital behemoth that is at once invisible but all around us.
Apparently, there is an ongoing investigation of social media. Time and again, the social media section is redacted, the phrase Harm to Ongoing Matter, or sometimes, if space is short, “HOM,” typed in to explain the redactions.
I’m ambivalent about the investigation of social media users.
The first amendment gives us all the right to be as crazy as we want to be. Just this past week, Anna Merlan’s, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, was released. Bottom line: from coast to coast, we’re up to our eyeballs in crazy conspiracy theories. Whether it’s a belief the Russians are out to get us, our Government is out to get us, or aliens are really in control, the puzzling fact of the matter is that conspiracy theories are alive and surprisingly well in the United States. They meet a need, they are the theodicy of the dispossessed. Distrustful people don’t stop looking for answers.
Candidly, I am less fearful of the conspiracy theorist armed with the right to speak than I am of the censor armed with guns, warrants and the concerted power of the state. The antidote to speech, whether it be hateful or merely crazy, is more speech. But the internet changes things – ideas once at the margins become centers of idiosyncratic silos. We feed on one another’s dark imaginings.
Just what is the internet? Who controls it?
The Mueller report begs the real question. Who controls big data, the algorithms that chart our every move, gesture, and, increasingly, seek, through affective computing, to forecast our emotional reaction to things? In the brave new world we now inhabit, data capitalists harvest data about us from every keystroke, seeking the better to predict what we will like, do and think in every conceivable circumstance. This behavioral economics yields an important corollary – the ability to control.
Lest you think I am paranoid, the past paragraph is a mere restatement of the research recently published by Shosana Zuboff in her masterful The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, a book that aspires to be the Das Kapital of the digital era. Zuboff is no conspiracy theorist: she is a professor at the Harvard Business School.
Surveillance capitalism, she writes, aims at nothing less than total control by means of harvesting surplus data each of us leave behind whenever we interact with the online world, either through email, viewing digital material, or use of the Internet of Things. Data about us is harvested, crunched by smart machines, and algorithms used to intrude into every aspect of our lives, the better to control us by third parties, the better to sell us products, and, perhaps, control us.
You see, long before the IRA sought to influence the 2016 elections, Facebook was doing experiments about how to influence voters. The New York Times reported just the other day that Facebook spends $22 million a year to provide security for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder. As I read the Mueller report and Zuboff, I concluded the son-of-a-bitch needs the security. He’s arguably the most dangerous man in American just now.
I appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars the other day. Jones is a client of mine who has been banned from social media – the digital overlords don’t like what he has to say. I told him that I thought it was no coincidence that Julian Assange was busted a matter of days after Mark Zuckerberg called for greater regulation of the Internet in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. Wikileaks seeks transparency at all costs. Jones called me “quirky.” “Great,” I thought, “one of the nation’s leading conspiracy theorists thinks I’m quirky.”
But what if the likes of Alex Jones are only half right? What if all this bitching and moaning about impeachment is merely bread and circuses for we the digital mob? I want to see what’s been redacted about social media from the Mueller report. I suspect the disturbing truth is that we, and our votes, are manipulated not just by the Russians, but by the algorithmic overlords who seek to predict our every move, one keystroke at a time.