Dear Government Snoops: Just Come Get Me Now

For a number of (really good) reasons, I’ve not been able to spend much time following the endless, ever-forthcoming details about the US government’s decision to vacuum up as much of our communication data as possible.

Even from such a less-than-ideal base of knowledge, and even though it will take months or years for everything to come out (if ever), I already believe the following:

What Edward Snowden did is one of the most heroic, medal-worthy acts by an American so far this century. I say this even though I’m also horrified that somebody with his scant qualifications was in such a position.

No mountain of prestigious journalistic prizes can repay the debt owed to the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald by the citizens of this country.

President Obama should immediately grant Snowden a full presidential pardon — and, further, give Snowden his own (prematurely given and, as is now clear, unearned) Nobel Peace Prize as a token of his gratitude.

Concerns about the steady erosion of civil liberties and all-too-quick slide into a surveillance state are finally starting to get a sliver of the traction they should have gotten since roughly the end of 2001.

The erosion of civil liberties via state surveillance has been accompanied by an ever-shrinking capacity for citizens to monitor the state. This ranges from the mundane (e.g., police officers routinely harassing, arresting, injuring, and/or falsely charging people for photographing or recording them in public) to the profound (e.g., charging journalists as “co-conspirators” for soliciting restricted information).

There is perhaps no better test of whether technology activists will be able to mobilize the public en masse on behalf of a desired change — rather than, as in the SOPA blackout, against an unpopular proposed change.

Whether or not an anti-surveillance movement can effect major changes in policy is not a fair measure of whether and how well such a movement performs as a movement; better measures include people mobilized to action, mainstream coverage, and policymakers and allies recruited.

Regardless of whether it is fair to measure an anti-surveillance movement based on policy outcomes, such policy outcomes may be a fair way to measure the viability of our democracy. If we can’t get people on the left, right, and center to join together to take back the Fourth Amendment, the promises of our Constitution are pretty hollow indeed. (Satire or not, this hits close to home.)

If I were in the position of Snowden, Greenwald, or the Guardian, I hope and believe that I would make pretty much the same decisions.

I say all of this publicly, even though I no longer have faith that I can do so without fear of retribution (yes, I use that term deliberately) by the state.

So, to the snoops that are undoubtedly listening — even though it’s unlikely that any human will ever actually read this tiny speck in an ocean of data — come and get me.

If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If leaking state secrets in the public interest puts one in danger of torture, indefinite detention, exile, or being disappeared, we’re all in danger — and for most people, this will be because too few will be brave enough to take such a risk to protect the citizenry from the state.

So consider me part of the conspiracy, Mr./Ms. Snoop. Tell your supervisors that we have a dissident who needs closer scrutiny and maybe a visit from an agent.

I’d rather go to prison, right now, for the rest of my life than to live in complicity as we slide ever-closer toward becoming a bona fide police state.

And just to increase the odds that a real human does see this: bombs Al Qaeda assassinate infidels fertilizer kill death murder planes airports President Obama Capitol White House 9/11 TNT flying with liquids in containers larger than 100 ml (3 oz. for you SAE holdouts) and not taking off my accursed shoes. So there.

P.S. If there’s one consequence I do fear as a result of this post specifically, it’s being put on the no-fly list — itself a particularly apt illustration of the intersection of terrorism paranoia, unchecked executive branch power, and rank bureaucratic incompetence.

On PRISM: Orwell’s or Huxley’s America

It’s been a whirlwind news cycle over the past 48 hours.  Welcome to the 21st century surveillance state.  We’ve been living here for some time, but no one bothered to say so until now.  In grappling with it all, I keep returning to a few literary classics.

Neil Postman begins his magnum opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by ruminating on two distinct visions of our dystopic future, portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophecy the same thing.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.  But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo the capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…  In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

(emphasis added)

On a Thursday afternoon panel at Personal Democracy Forum, Zeynep Tufecki argued that big data in campaigns is paving the way for a future that is equal parts Orwell and Huxley.  The threat comes less from electoral campaigns themselves than from well-financed economic players who will replicate and enhance the new market techniques in other arenas.  Our powers of monitoring and distraction are growing at an outlandish pace.

Through cosmic coincidence, the first news about PRISM broke just after her panel.  Along with monitoring all of our phone calls through Verizon, it seems the NSA is also capable of accessing all communications via Google/Gmail/YouTube, Microsoft/Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Aol, and Paltalk. According to the career intelligence officer who leaked the information, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

PRISM is Orwell’s America. Really, what else can you call it? If, two weeks ago, Someone told me that the government was soaking up all our online data, capable of reading things while we type them, I would have backed away slowly, wondering where they left their tin foil hat. Then the Washington Post told me instead.  The depth and breadth of this domestic spying program is just astonishing.

But Huxley’s vision is the reason this Orwellian architecture can be constructed.  Consider:

RT @AdamKilgoreWP Friday on A1 of WaPo: The govt is reading yr email. Saturday: The Nats’ season has been a real drag http://wapo.st/15JSxGU 

And it’s not just the front page of the Washington Post.  Tune in to your Twitter stream tomorrow, around 9:30PM EST.  I guarantee you that no one will be discussing PRISM.  They’ll be talking about Daenerys Stormborn and Arya Stark.  They’ll be talking about Lebron James and Tony Parker.  They’ll be trading jokes about Don Draper and Joan Holloway.  It’s like Kurt Cobain said, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us.”

I see room for just a bit of anti-Huxley hope.  Also at Personal Democracy Forum, Sara Critchfield talked about Upworthy.com.  Upworthy has only been around for a year and a half, and it already reaches 2/3rds of all Americans.  Their business model is surprisingly simple: find “socially positive” stories, repackage them with more engaging headlines, and help them go viral.  Eli Pariser founded Upworthy after he wrote The Filter Bubble (see my review here).  It was founded on the premise that people actually want more than cat videos and celebrity gossip.  Provide engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, or enraging content and people will read it, share it, and discuss it.  We just have to get better at marketing the quality content as well as we market the junk content.

Upworthy’s success gives reason for hope.  Sunday night, I’ll be watching the NBA Finals and Game of Thrones.  But Monday, I’ll probably see some PRISM-related content from Upworthy in my media stream, and I’ll share it and participate further in the public conversation.  How much hope we should have is directly proportional to how large of a niche companies like Upworthy will eventually occupy.  How widely are those diverse preferences for substantive and entertaining comments spread?  Can we sustain national attention around issues like PRISM for long enough to demand answers and action from public officials, or will we quickly flip to the next story?

I don’t know.  But, as we marvel at this newly unveiled Orwellian surveillance state, it’s these Huxley-esque questions that will concern me most.

We don’t arrive at this surveillance regime through a perpetual state of fear.  We get there through perpetual distraction.

Neglect and Uncle Sam, not the Internet, Killed the Middle Class

In an interview with Salon and his newest book, “digital visionary” (Salon’s words) Jaron Lanier claims that the internet has destroyed the middle class. Kodak employed 140,000 people, while at the point of its sale to Facebook, Instagram employed just 13, and (without much exaggeration) thus, the internet killed the middle class. QED.

What a crock.

Lanier is apparently incapable of stepping back from technological determinism and looking at the actual causes of our ballooning economic inequality — which, to cut to the chase, is primarily a result of our policy choices. Yet the role of government in determining the overall shape of the economy is too often understated or outright ignored by those who wring their hands about growing economic inequality.

With some noted exceptions, those who criticize Lanier still mostly point at the old standby twin bogeymen of automation and outsourcing. The HuffPost chat in which all of the guests are willing to challenge Lanier’s conclusions is typical on this count but hardly alone. To his credit, Buffalo State College economist Bruce Fisher starts heading in the right direction with his concerns about fostering and preserving the political and social engagement of those who are being left out, but he fails to take it the next step and discuss the major policy changes and political neglect that have brought us to this point.

The best explanation that I’ve seen of America’s growing wealth inequality is Winner-Take-All Politics, in which Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson start with a simple look at other industrialized countries to show that inequality isn’t an inexorable outcome trade and automation. The Germans and Swedes certainly have similar chances to outsource their manufacturing and use technology to reduce labor forces.

Not only does the rest of the industrial world have the internet, too, better telecom policy means they generally have faster connections and cheaper prices. Yet as measured by the Gini Coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, their economies have far more equal distributions of income in take-home pay and wealth.

The wealth distribution in particular is just shocking — the US has a wealth Gini of .801 (where 1.000 is “one person owns everything”), the fifth highest among all included countries and almost exactly the same as the distribution of wealth across the entire planet (.803). Think about that for a second; we have the same radically unequal distribution of capital within the US as among the entire population of the world across all countries — from Hong Kong and Switzerland to Nigeria and Haiti.

With our paper-thin social safety net and highly unequal distribution of income and wealth, we’re left with an economy where tens of millions struggle to get by while wealthy Manhattanites are hiring handicapped “relatives” for $1,000 per day to be able to skip the lines at Disney World.

Across countless major policy areas —health care, education, financial regulation, taxation, support for the unemployed, and many more — the rest of the industrialized world generally does far more to make their societies fairer for all. Our shrinking protections for workers may be the greatest single cause of the shrinking middle class. Of course, this can be done badly — I would certainly not want to swing as far as Italy and Spain, where it’s nearly impossible to fire somebody once they’re a regular, fulltime employee. Yet we should not allow employers to fire union organizers with near impunity. We should not force organizers to wait for months between card check and votes to unionize so that employers can “educate” their captive audience workforce with the most pernicious disinformation and intimidation. We should not sit idly while nearly half of states fail to meet even “minimum workplace-safety inspection goals, due to state budget cuts and reduced staffing.”

It’s true that the middle class is being gutted in the US, but this is primarily due to how our political system turns the act of surviving and thriving into a high-wire act for an ever-larger slice of the population. Laid-off baby boomers, even those with desirable skills, are having a devil of a time finding work in a country where age discrimination is only nominally illegal. Meanwhile, our children attend public schools with an unconscionably unequal distribution of funding, so moving or being born into a more affordable neighborhood may cost kids their futures, too.

Teens and laid off workers alike are told that college is the route to a better future, but the cost of education is skyrocketing as states and the feds slash public investment in higher education. Many families — even many families with health insurance — are one major medical problem away from unemployment and bankruptcy. Since it’s totally legal to use credit reports and current employment status in making hiring decisions, being laid off or losing one’s job after a medical problem can quickly become a death spiral. None of this is due to outsourcing or automation, but is instead the result of a noxious combination of deliberate policy changes (the privileged seeking to strengthen their own hand) and policy drift (the rest of us sitting idly by or being ignored when we do speak up).

Frankly, I’m glad that Lanier has released this book, sloppy though it may be. (The people raving about this book as a carefully wrought masterpiece are deluding themselves — and not, as Lanier accuses others of doing, “diluting themselves”.) This is not primarily because he has some insights here and there, but because we need to talk about the gutting of the middle class as loudly and as frequently as possible. We must do so, however, in a way that examines how our collective decisions have gotten us to this point. That includes making international comparisons with other “laboratories of democracy” to see how we can do better.

After even a cursory glance abroad, we will see that we should stop returning to the too-easy explanations based on globalization and technology. These forces are at play across the world, and the other wealthy industrialized countries have generally not had the same dismal results. The more likely culprit is in the halls of government.

Click Your Heels, Become A Movement

I’ve just gotten around to reading Nicholas Lehmann’s New Yorker piece, “When the Earth Moved.”  Lehmann compares today’s environmental movement to the 1970 Earth Day-era environmental movement and, of course, finds it wanting.  It’s an easy critical piece to write, and the prose is well-constructed.  But I found the whole thing pretty underwhelming.

Lehmann is trafficking in a pretty standard critique of modern-day political organizing.  “They’ve traded outsider movement-building for insider access.”  Theda Skocpol offers approximately the same critique in her Scholar Strategy Network paper, “Naming the Problem.”  It’s a tempting critique, but it’s also wrong.  The environmental movement has attempted to engage in movement-building.  If the outcomes haven’t been what we’d hope for, it isn’t for lack of trying.  Building a large-scale social movement, it turns out, is not so simple.

Here’s Lehmann, talking about the failure of the 2010 climate bill:

The environmental movement had certainly believed that it was playing the big game [in 2010]. Bartosiewicz and Miley estimate that the groups behind the climate-action partnership spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to pass their bill. The organizers of Earth Day never would have been able to get a substantial group of corporate chief executives to sit down with them and negotiate, even if they had wanted to. Today’s big environmental groups recruit through direct mail and the media, filling their rosters with millions of people who are happy to click “Like” on clean air. What the groups lack, however, is the Earth Day organizers’ ability to generate thousands of events that people actually attend—the kind of activity that creates pressure on legislators. (emphasis added)

In October 2006, 6 recent Middlebury college graduates and 1 Middlebury college professor launched the Step It Up climate day-of-action.  On April 15, 2007, six months of organizing — most of it facilitated through the Internet — produced the “Step It Up” day of action, which featured 1,410 events across the country.  Step It Up later became 350.org, which regularly plans massive global days-of-action that feature 4,000-5,000 simultaneous events.

350 is not one of the old environmental lobbying groups that Lehmann and Skocpol criticize.  But organizations like the Sierra Club helped Step It Up succeed.  Sierra sent email blasts to those supporters who “click ‘Like’.”  Sierra devoted field staff to help organize events on the ground.  And the Sierra Student Coalition has been a key actor in the Energy Action Coalition, which regularly brings tens of thousands of college students together for the annual PowerShift conference.  That all sounds an awful lot like the movement-building Lehmann is asking for.

The real problem with the Lehmann piece is the ceteris paribus* assumption that he sneaks in.  (1) Earth Day felt like a movement and created pressure on legislators.  (2) The 2010 climate movement failed to create pressure on legislators.  Therefore (3) The 2010 climate movement wasn’t enough of a movement.  The trick is, American government in 2010 is exponentially more broken  than American government in 1970.

Here’s another key passage from Lehmann:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, blasted the environmentalists’ political ineptitude at a private meeting. (Bartosiewicz and Miley obtained a tape recording.) The big environmental groups had promised the White House that they could deliver a few key Republican votes in the Senate. Instead, Emanuel said, “They didn’t have shit. And folks, they were dicking around for two years. And I had those meetings in my office so it was not that I wasn’t listening to them. This is a real big game, and you’ve got to wear your big-boy pants.”

Rahm Emanuel insulting the “professional left” ain’t news.  So let’s step back for a second and think about the actual threshold environmentalists were being asked to pass:

we had to deliver “a few” Republican Senate votes.

In 2009-2010.

If we had the Senate of 1970, I think the modern environmental movement would have proved “movement” enough to get it done.  And if the environmental movement of 1970 had faced the Senate of 2009-2010, I don’t think a single one of our bedrock environmental laws would have passed.  When all is said and done, Earth Day 1970 was a bunch of campus teach-ins.  If you think campus teach-ins, even big ones, would have broken the lockstep unity of our present-day Senate Republicans, then you haven’t been paying very close attention to the news.

I was on the Sierra Club Board in 2009-2010.  We thought we could pass a climate bill because we thought the Senate was less broken than it actually was.  We also thought health care reform would eat up less of the Senate’s clock (in a reasonable universe, it would have).  And we thought we’d get more leadership help from Obama than we did.

Should the environmental community have invested more in organizing?  I think so.  But I would think that regardless.  I think organizing is how you build power.

Should some members of USCAP have been less obnoxiously compromising and insider-focused?  I think so.  But I’ve had the same critiques of those organizations for 17 years.

Can the environmental movement pass a climate bill if it starts acting more like a movement?  …Probably not.  Should it try anyway?  Well yeah.  If something is vitally important but pretty damn unlikely, you take your best shot regardless of the long odds.

But let’s be clear: “building a movement” is not as simple as investing in movement-building.  Scholars and activists alike are too quick to assume that we have direct agency over our own political power.  Ask yourself this: what force would cause 60 Senators — including coal-state Democrats and moderate Republicans — to override a filibuster and pass major climate legislation?  What force would make the cause of climate change more popular than the cause of closing background check loopholes so that criminals find it harder to purchase guns?  Climate change is divisive and complicated. Background checks are unifying and simple.

I say all this because I badly want to agree with Lehmann and Skocpol.  I agree with their aims, and I know they’re trying to help.  And it is not as though either of them imagine the Senate to be a warm, friendly, or functional place — part of Skocpol’s aim is explicitly to make clear that environmentalists were not close in 2009, so they don’t trot out the same strategy next time.  She’s right about that.  But by harkening back to the movements of the 1970s, both authors are also wishing away the intervening buildup of dysfunction.

We have a broken government that cannot pass the easy, popular stuff.  We have a slow-building cataclysm in global warming.  It is in everyone’s long-term interest to address the crisis, but that runs counter to the short-term interests of assorted powerful actors.  Passing climate legislation requires fixing the broken Senate while simultaneously building a broader social movement.  Both of those tasks will take a lot of time, and we have precious little time left.

Casting blame at advocates for not trying hard enough to build a movement is the easy way out.  We were trying to build a movement in 2007, 08, 09, 10, and onward through today.  The movement is, in fact, building.  I’d like it to build faster, and I’d like to see major organizations devote more resources to those goals.  But, to be perfectly honest, more organizers in 2010 wouldn’t have made a difference.  The dysfunction that scuttled the climate bill is far beyond the environmental movement.

 

 

*for those who didn’t take a ton of constitutional law classes in college, “ceteris paribus” = “all else being equal”

How Many Technologists Does the Republican Party Need?

Over at DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas offers a spirited defense of what I term the theory of “ideological congruence” in partisan technology adoption.

There’s a reason that conservatives have fallen so far behind liberals on the technology front, and it truly is cultural. Go read Wired or Ars Technica or The Verge or any gadget blog and note how overwhelmingly liberal the publications are—pro-science, pro-progress and pro-net neutrality. They don’t believe that AT&T would provide better service without government regulations or interference. They loathe our current intellectual property regime (both copyright and trademark). They want something done about global climate change (that science stuff) and stem cell research (more of that science stuff).

Markos is making an important point here.  Silicon Valley votes Democratic.  Google and Apple employees donate Democratic.  When technologists volunteer for campaigns, they tend to volunteer for the Dems.  That makes it a lot easier for Dems to hire talented analysts, engineers, and digital campaigners.  It’s a built-in advantage that has nothing to do with the outparty status.  I don’t expect it will go away any time soon — big databases aren’t inherently progressive, but the people who build them often are.

That said, I often worry that we make too much of these ideological bridges.  The Republican Party doesn’t need a majority of Silicon Valley residents or Wired readers to come work for, donate to, or volunteer with them.  They just need a few dozen good ones.  Plenty of wealthy technologists have a right/libertarian bent.  Plenty of others believe that campaign technologies should be evenly distributed, and are happy to work for Republicans.  In the early years of the World Wide Web, conservatives carved out a lead with sites like the DrudgeReport and FreeRepublic.  Until after the 2004 election, they also had better campaign data practices than their Democratic opponents.  The ideological affinity of Silicon Valley didn’t change in the intervening years; Democrats just came to their senses and started investing in technology, testing, and training.

The real challenge facing Republican campaigns today isn’t their hostility to scientific analysis or scientists themselves*.  The real challenge is a series of intra-party fights among networks of candidates, donors, campaigners and consultants.  When Republican digital strategists like Patrick Ruffini talk about launching new organizations to replicate the Democratic successes like the New Organizing Institute, Analyst Group, and New Media Ventures, he surely knows that he’ll face some stiff internal competition. Romney’s digital director Zac Moffatt made a ton of money on the 2012 election.  I imagine his company, Targeted Victory, will try to resist the new competition from Ruffini and company.

The hidden story of the current Democratic tech advantage is that losing in consecutive cycles (2000, 2002, 2004) led for major internal calls to “fire the consultants.”  This created a market opportunity for new consultants and campaigners, many of whom came out of the old Dean campaign.  Firms like BlueStateDigital probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if Al Gore or John Kerry had been president in the last decade.  Dems would’ve kept hiring Bob Shrum and company, and they would’ve kept demanding that campaign investments and databases remain exactly as they were.  In American elections, to the winner goes the spoils, and to the loser goes the incentive to try something different next time.

I don’t think Republicans are going to fix the sorry state of their campaign technology overnight.  And one reason is certainly the ideological disconnect between (most) Republican elites and (most) technological elites.  But the much bigger factor is that they aren’t quite ready to fire the old and invest in the new just yet.  Party elites are quick to point out the 2010 victory.  2012 was just “bad luck,” or “lack of message discipline,” or “the hurricane,” even.  Republicans haven’t experienced the same series of depressing losses that Democrats experienced from 2000-2004 (and it isn’t like 1994 or 1998 provided any comfort to Democrats either).  We’re now seeing the start of those conservative intra-party fights, but I don’t expect them to finish any time soon.

Make no mistake, though.  If Republicans work out those internal fights and make a concerted effort to invest in infrastructure and hire new people, they’ll be able to find plenty of candidates.  Silicon Valley may be a blue region, but there’s still enough red to go around.

 

*It sure doesn’t help, though.

Dear Free Beacon: Please Stop Hurting America

Free Beacon is the worst.  Take a minute to read Jonathan Chait’s latest column at New York Magazine, “Hitler Alive and Well, Owning Liberal Magazine.”  While  relaunching The New Republic, Chris Hughes removed 12 contributing editors from the masthead.  Five of them were jewish.  None of them had written anything at TNR in years.  Free Beacon decided that this merited an article titled  “Hughes Drops Jews” and called it “a move that may signal the publication’s continued drift away from a staunchly pro-Israel standpoint.”

Chait appropriately demolishes the article, so I don’t have a lot more to add on this particular incident of drive-by hackery.  It isn’t the first from the Free Beacon, and it surely won’t be the last.  But I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider just how awful the Beacon’s self-described devotion to “combat journalism” is for American politics.  Editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti describes this “new approach” thusly:

Andrew Breitbart pioneered the new approach. His websites were dedicated, impassioned, and broke news. Glenn Beck exposed White House czar Van Jones’s radical, 9/11-Truth past. Guerilla journalist James O’Keefe performed sting operations that led to ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and NPR having very bad days. Tucker Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, published excerpts from the Journolist, which showed liberal writers coordinating their party line.

Breitbart, O’Keefe, and Carlson… Man, in the hallowed annals of awfulness, Free Beacon isn’t just terrible, it’s downright derivative.

The inclusion of Carlson is particularly instructive, because he’s been called to task for “hurting America” before.  Tucker and his bowtie were the centerpiece of Crossfire, CNN’s arguing-talking-heads program that represented the final reductio ad absurdum of kneejerk “objective” news.  He has since lost the bowtie and launched a more opinionated online outlet, but he’s no less of an embarrassment.

To Continetti and his staff, Carlson is revered instead of ridiculed.  “Combat journalism” combines the worst features of Gotcha journalism  with the worst features of the partisan echo chamber.  O’Keefe’s selective misrepresentation of ACORN is a feature of this “new approach,” rather than a bug.  Every opportunity to frame liberals or the mainstream media as threatening enemies should be exploited, regardless of whether the sentence-level blame holds up at the scale of a paragraph.

Bravo to Chait for ridiculing these dangerous jokers.  They deserve our scorn.  Their readers deserve our admonishment.  Their advertisers deserve our angry e-mails.  The health of our media system can be judged as inversely proportional to the health of media organizations like this one.  The Free Beacon only succeeds in a dangerously polarized, informationally unhealthy America.

We can do better than this.  And self-respecting conservatives ought to be demanding better as well.

Outparty Innovation Incentives in the News

The Democratic Party has a clear technology advantage over the GOP right now.  Many are now asking a single question: “is this a permanent advantage?”

I’m pretty confident that the advantage won’t be permanent.  In my book, The MoveOn Effect, I offer a theory of “outparty innovation incentives.”  Simply put, new technological opportunities sync well with countermobilization.  The party in power tends to maintain their existing systems and reward their victorious campaigners and consultants.  The party out-of-power tends to search around for new ways to “change the game.”  Particularly after losing consecutive election cycles, they tend to fire the old “coaches” and bring in new ones.  The same pattern holds among partisan advocacy efforts.  It’s a lot easier to build membership, funding, and momentum when you’re opposing government overreach (The Left had “Win Without War,” the Right had “Keep Your Government Hands Off Our Medicare) than when you’re trying to move major legislation through the sausage-making process.

Steve Friess at Politico offers us the latest glimpse at GOP efforts to address the campaign technology gap.  The whole article is worth reading, but three quotes stood out for me as particularly noteworthy:

At their recent leadership retreat, Chairman Reince Priebus and others sounded the bell for closing the vast technological divide that made all the difference for Democrats in getting out the votelast fall in numbers that stunned the pundit class. “Let’s host Skype-based training sessions and Google hangouts on campaign strategy, fundraising, door-to-door advocacy, and digital tools,” Priebus urged at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C. “We need to give the next generation of organizers access to the brightest experts.” (emphasis added)

Notice that phrase, “the next generation of organizers.”  It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans were treating “organizer” as a punchline.  From Sarah Palin on down, the craft of organizing has been viewed with active disdain.  I attended a Political Innovation Summit at Google last Friday, and top Republican technologists went out of their way to announce that “the stigma is gone” from the title.  Republican party leadership realizes that message consultants can’t win elections on their own.  I’d call that a necessary-but-insufficient condition for broader changes within the party.

“We absolutely need a centralized database to record voter history, online and offline interactions and add in demographic data that we can learn from and social data we can learn from to get a full picture of our customers,” [Peter] Pasi [Santorum digital consultant] said.

[…]

The nature of conservatism is about individual free-market thinking and competition and not about looking to create a strong collective for the betterment of society,” said [Vincent] Harris, who also managed the digital efforts for Newt Gingrich, Allen West and Linda McMahon in 2012. “It’s almost a socialist premise. But Republicans need to adopt that collective mind-set because we are going up against a data giant and a data giant that is built by really, really smart tech geeks that Republicans simply don’t have.”

In this second quote, we see the personnel hurdle that Republicans face.  Vincent Harris helped coordinate social media for Ted Cruz’s Senate vicotry.  He recognizes the need for better technology and, in particular, top-down coordination.  But he also thinks that party-based voter files are “almost socialist.” That is an… extraordinarily dumb thing for him to believe (apparently socialism is both top-down and bottom-up!).  Last time I checked, corporations in a free-market were pretty good at behaving as an oligopoly when it suited their shared interests.  Constructing a good voter file doesn’t run against conservative ideology.  It just runs against the interests of existing stakeholders who currently make a lot of money off of the inefficiencies in the current data market.  Losing another election or two can do wonders for clarifying their “values,” just as it did for the Democrats after 2004.

The problem for the Republicans is that even if they could get it together to create their own VAN-style system and use it properly, the Democrats now have years of historic data that continue to expand. It would take years to catch up if only because fine-tuning and collecting such information is a laborious task that is difficult to hasten, Harris said.

“We better all put our egos behind us and do what’s best for the party,” Harris said. “We’re now nine months out from the 2013 election, 21 months to the mid-terms. People are saying the right things, but not much is being done.”

This third and final quote helps explain why outparty innovation incentives tend toward the next wave of technological innovations.  There’s nothing stopping Republicans from constructing a better data system that competes with NGP/VAN.  But it is going to take them a lot of time, and the Democrats’ first-mover advantage means they will continue to refine the dataset and reap increasing value from it.  Republican will likely invest in data for the 2014 midterm, but they are unlikely to catch up right away.

The Democratic Party network currently has a technological advantage.  But new technologies continue to ripen all the time.  As Republicans start hiring new organizers and technologists, they’re going to be looking to the latest wave of technological innovation, experimenting with untested strategies and tactics.  A few of them will work out — perhaps not in 2014, but almost certainly by 2016.  As Democrats continue to focus on perfecting the tools which worked so well in 2008 and 2012, this creates space for Republicans to assert an advantage in the next area of internet-mediated mobilization (whatever it may be).

Pushing for better gun laws: What’s the best rhetorical strategy?

Several very, very smart media studies scholars, who know tons about political communication — who may or may not want their names publicly identified in this context — have started wondering about how to turn this moment into an opportunity to persuade the political center to adopt stronger gun regulation.

With nearly half of households in the US owning at least one gun, how do we reach these folks (excluding the “From my cold dead hands!” set, of course) in a way that acknowledges and respects the perfectly sensible motivations for owning a gun? Well, here are my thoughts on an overall strategy.

This Acela corridor liberal has shot guns and even (gasp!) killed animals. Being from Colorado (I graduated from Bear Creek High School, which is just down the road from Columbine), I know a great many people who can say the same. Yet even among this set, I think a majority either already believe or could be talked into something like Brady Bill 2.0 and similar measures.

One way not to get there, though, is to demonize gun owners or gun ownership. The push for gun reform will get a lot more traction if it proceeds from a place of understanding and sympathizing with sport shooters, farmers, antiques collectors, and others who own guns for defensible reasons. Owning one or more guns doesn’t make you a “gun nut,” nor does enjoying shooting, or knowing about the different types of guns, or appreciating guns’ amazing capabilities.

Also of importance, we would do well to deal carefully with the misconception that owning a gun makes the gun owner safer. Empirically, this belief is simply mistaken — statistically speaking, owning a gun makes one and one’s family substantially less safe — but this is true for reasons that make the case very difficult to make.

To borrow a term from media effects research, the thought processes that make gun ownership seem likely to make one safer are a fantastic example of a third person effect. Nobody envisions him/herself as potentially committing suicide, for instance, even though suicide is the main cause of gun death in this country every year. (US gun deaths in 2007: over 17,000 via suicide, under 13,000 via homicide.)

Besides suicide, other terrible outcomes of gun ownership include:

  • Use of guns to intimidate or injure friends and loved ones
  • Accidental shooting of loved ones, mistaken for criminals (On this point specifically, I’m super glad my mom didn’t have a bedside shotgun with which to shoot me when I broke back into our house after sneaking out, then getting locked out, at age 16. The cops who answered her 911 call thankfully had enough training to assess me as a non-threat before pumping me full of lead.)
  • Accidental gun use by children
  • Accidental shootings of compatriots during sport shooting (see Cheney, Dick)
  • Shooting bystanders and/or catching them with bullet ricochets during a shootout (see, e.g., the shootout near the Empire State Building in January; thankfully none of the bystanders died, but stray bullets by NYPD officers, and only NYPD officers, sent NINE of them to the hospital)
  • Angry confrontations between armed people, each viewing themselves as in the right, using their guns “defensively”

All of these are great reasons for not owning a gun, but each reason depends on at least a bit of humility in recognizing that we, too, are imperfect humans. It’s humbling to accept even the remote possibility that one might commit suicide, or wield a gun in anger, or leave a gun somewhere that a child could find it, or not recognize one’s own family member until after shooting them. It’s disempowering to accept the fact that, if trained professionals can’t hit a suspect without hitting bystanders, we have almost no chance of doing so.

Those all seem like things that can only happen to other people. Until it happens to you, at which point it’s too late.

All of this suggests a rhetorical strategy that focuses on keeping guns out of other people’s hands. Now more than ever, it’s pretty obvious that some people can’t be trusted with guns, and even though we won’t be able to keep all of these people from buying them, we sure could try a lot harder.

Now more than ever, it’s increasingly clear that guns owned for legitimate purposes like recreation don’t need the kind of raw killing power that makes it easy to kill indiscriminately — and that at least a few people will use guns that have that kind of power specifically for the purpose of indiscriminate killing.

In short, our rhetoric should focus on the goal of reducing the number of criminal/mentally unstable “others” who have guns, and on reducing the firepower of those who have/get guns should they fall through the cracks of the background checks and get a gun anyway.

Convincing you that, ironically, YOU are less safe if YOU own a gun is hard work. Convincing you that YOU are less safe if OTHER PEOPLE own guns, however, is easier. Convincing you that OTHER PEOPLE can’t be trusted with an AR-15, or with high-capacity magazines, or to have the good sense to install a trigger lock (so their curious 4-year-old doesn’t blow their leg off) if we don’t make them? That’s a much, much easier proposition.

Convincing you that at least a few OTHER PEOPLE who are criminals or mentally unsound will be kept out of the gun ownership club if we have universal, meaningful background checks, and that this will prevent a few (but not all) of these OTHER PEOPLE from killing innocent people? And that this outcome makes it worth a bit more bureaucracy standing in the way of “good people” owning guns? Again, I think that’s a winning strategy.

Guns can be fun for and used sanely by sane people. The more the pro-regulation case starts from here, the more appealing our case will be.

How To Deal with a Breitbart “Reporter”

I spent this afternoon at a protest CREDO organized outside the NRA’s DC office.  It seemed only appropriate.

As the protest ended, a woman with a Flipcam approached me, hastily identified herself as being with Breitbart TV, and then launched into a few interview questions designed to provoke an outraged-liberal reaction (“do you really believe only police officers should be allowed to carry firearms?”  “what about the shooting in Oregon last week that was stopped by a citizen carrying a firearm?  Couldn’t armed citizens have saved those children’s lives?”).

I’m proudly confident my interview won’t appear on any of the Breitbart websites.  I didn’t give the “reporter” what she was looking for.  As I walked away from the interaction, I noticed someone in an outright shouting match with another “reporter” from Newsbuster/Media Research Center.  (“I didn’t say that!  Stop twisting my words!”)

As a public service of sorts, I thought I’d outline the steps you should take when dealing with a camera-wielding conservative jackass:

1. Stay calm.  The goal of a rightwing interviewer is to get some material that reinforces their biases about liberals.  You’re supposed to be an angry radical America-hater who doesn’t understand the constitution.  Don’t give them that material.  Use a calm voice and patiently explain what motivated you to attend the protest today.  This is neither a debate nor an argument that you can win.  You win the interaction by eating up their time while giving them no useable material.

2. Stay on message.  This is media training 101, I know.  But it’s even more important here.  My first answer to the Brietbartian was “I think it’s time we had sensible gun regulations in this country.  I think we should regulate guns as much as we regulate Sudafed.”  Every other answer circled back to this same Sudafed point.  I stayed polite about it, so she wouldn’t just give up and find an easier mark.  But I didn’t take any of the bait she laid out for me either.  We attend protests because any reasonable person ought to be outraged at the state of society.  When confronted by rightwing attack-media, be that reasonable person.  It makes you utterly unfilmable.

3. The Interview Ends When You Want It To End.  Around the eighth question, I could see that she was getting frustrated and was trying to push harder.  Most of the other protesters had already dispersed.  So as she started in with another don’t-you-think hypothetical, I politely replied “that’s all the time I’ve got, it was nice talking to you,” then turned and walked away.  Again, the point here is to control the terms of the engagement while giving them no good material to splice later on.

You use similar tools when interacting with real reporters, of course.  But the difference is that, when engaging with real reporters, both sides are acting in good faith.  The real reporter wants to know what the story is, and wants clips that help to animate this story.  Anger can be a helpful visual.  A Breitbart/O’Keefe/MRC “journalist” already knows what the story is (liberals are terrible stupid hypocrites who must be prevented from endangering our freedoms!).  So you deny them the visual instead.  Occupy them, remain pleasant, act reasonable, and then politely finish the interview whenever you like.

It won’t stop the hate-mongers, but it’ll at least deny them some pageviews.  That’s a small victory, and sometimes that’s all we can hope for.

Research Note: The Trouble With Studying Big Data in Campaigns

What are political campaigns doing with our data?  How would we know?

Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, gave a talk at GW last night.  The book offers a strong take on the impact of the Analyst Institute on American political campaigning.  It traces the emergence of more sophisticated (and more widely available) voter data, and also traces the emergence of rigorous social scientific experiments that help campaigns optimize their outreach tactics.  It’s well worth your time.

During Q&A, an interesting tangent came up: political campaigns won’t talk with reporters about their data practices.  They didn’t want to give anything away that their opponents could use.  The Obama campaign told its staff not to talk to Issenberg.  When other reporters write articles about campaign data mining, the campaigns don’t offer corrections if they’ve gotten it wrong.  What little public record we have of these activities is based on reporters’ best guesses, without the usual corrective of sources shouting them down via the blogosphere.

This morning, one of those potential sources weighed in.  Ethan Roeder, data director of Obama for America, wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “I Am Not Big Brother.”  Pushing back against some of hype, he tells us, “You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.”

The truth is probably somewhere between Roeder and the underinformed headlines.  It’s true that campaigns don’t know anything more about our online behavior than retailers like Target, but what those retailers know is pretty disturbing.  And c’mon, the Obama campaign operates at a scale and complexity far greater than any “savvy blogger.”  That scale matters for what questions the campaign is going to ask, and what it is going to do with our information.

As a researcher who studies how organizations adapt to the digital environment, the real trouble here is that it’s nearly impossible to move beyond vague impressions.  Campaigns have an incentive not to talk to reporters.  They have an even greater incentive not to talk to academic researchers (at least without a non-disclosure agreement firmly in hand…).  When the journalistic coverage gets basic facts wrong, scholars have little way of knowing.  When campaigners disagree after-the-fact, we can’t tell whether they’re correcting the public record or trying to smooth away rightful mistrust.

Academics at our best offer healthy skepticism to the public discourse.  There are important conversations for us to have about the implications of refined digital marketing, management, and persuasion techniques for a healthy democracy.  But it’s going to be systematically difficult to engage in those conversations, because the underlying facts just aren’t going to be very clear.