To Bot or Not to Bot: That Is (Not) the Question*
I have been noticing a lot of social media postings that seem to endlessly and reflexively echo the dire warning that if you post anything “negative” (whether true or false) about a Democratic candidate, you are likely just posting fake news generated by Russian Bots, thus helping Putin re-elect his orange lapdog.
Almost invariably, the implications of these warnings are:
1. That anything critical of any Democratic candidate necessarily weakens the prospects of them or any other Democrat winning the general election.
2. That this is true even during the primary season when, presumably voters are called upon to make an informed choice about who to back as the party’s nominee.
3. That it matters little if at all whether the information is verifiably true or simply made up and
4. That it is either impossible or not worth the effort to try to discern between fact and fake.
There is often a corollary to this line of commentary and it is this:
5. The above, along with the mantra, “Blue No Matter Who,” applies to all candidates except Bernie Sanders.
So let’s break this down, starting with 1 and 2:
To restate the first two premises:
1. Factual debate in the primary process is inherently harmful and
2. Voters do not need to be informed by substantive data about the candidates, such as stated policy positions, voting record, past performance in positions of public trust and where they get their money, and in fact it is dangerous to debate these data points.
The implication is that we should make choices based on what I call “the horse race and the beauty contest,” non-factual but often highly emotional considerations based on rhetoric, debate performance and demographic affinity. I reject those premises.
Here’s my bias: I believe that there is value in the “small d” democratic process, and that voting is both a right and a duty, won and gradually expanded at great cost by those who went before us and handed down to us to protect and defend. I believe that the basic institutions of democracy rest not with the politicians but with the people and that it is up to us to resist the erosion of our right to know, to speak the truth and to vote on the basis of full and honest information. That means that We the People need to put the effort into discerning what the truth is and have the courage to speak it.
The alternative is to just sit back and allow two unaccountable party machines dominated by big money to select candidates to be the guardians of the rigged system that keeps them in power, and then periodically trudge to the polling place to choose between two out of touch oligarchs who don’t give a damn about us…or better still stay home and let our betters decide for us. I do not accept that verdict.
As for weakening the prospects of an eventual nominee, one important purpose of a vetting process is to find out what a candidate’s weaknesses are and push them to correct what they can and get out in front of the rest before the opposition does. In this day and age it is criminally naïve to think that our opposition won’t find out about and won’t exploit any possible ammunition that they can use to their advantage in the general election. It is inconceivable, for example, that any past history of being on the wrong side of issues such as voting for an unjust war or trade policies that turned out to be toxic won’t be raised, along with any history of racist or sexist behavior, or past lies or mis-representations that undermine a candidate’s “authenticity.” That this would be the proverbial “pot calling the kettle black” is irrelevant. These issues will not go away just because we don’t raise them now.
It is equally naïve to think that they won’t distort and make stuff up as well. Labels such as “socialist,” “tax and spend” and whatever lie Twitler pulls out of his “very stable genius” behind will surely be raised against ANY Democratic candidate, along with endless screeds about crazy, corrupt, treasonous baby-killers, climate change as a Chinese plot and hordes of brown people coming to get free stuff and take our jobs — whatever feeds red meat to the fascist base or inflames low-information voters.
We cannot ignore these threats and it is counter-productive to try to defuse them by attempting to appease, compromise or “triangulate” with pure evil. That only validates the Republican narrative. It is our job to stick to core values and principles, reach out, educate and engage in critical thinking. That includes practicing and modeling media literacy, not throwing up our hands and conceding the public forum to the forces we most fear.
This brings us to premises 3 and 4, that there is no real truth and that if there is it is impossible to discern it from fiction. These notions are equally false and dangerous. They are also lazy. When I see a warning that I should not share critical information because anything could be a “Russian bot” I find it profoundly insulting. I am not an idiot, nor are millions of other voters who take the trouble to be informed.
When I see information posted about a candidate (or anything for that matter) I follow the link and read the damn thing before sharing it. I look at the source and the author, rejecting stories that emanate from sources known to be unreliable. I discount information that can’t be tracked down elsewhere, and anything on websites whose ownership is concealed. I discount opinion pieces masquerading as reporting and “reporting” that does not cite sources or that only cites sources that are equally opaque and/or look like a link-farm. I am on the alert for URLs that resemble but are not really those of real news sites, and stories that lack a by-line (who writes stuff and doesn’t want to be recognized as its author?) or other attribution (is it plagiarized, and from where?). I discern between reporters who adhere to the basic standards of journalism and those who don’t. I look for who has to get their articles past publishers and editors who have some stake in maintaining credibility with peers. I want to know if they have they been upheld as reliable in the past or debunked and discredited. I want to know who has been caught distorting, suppressing or plagiarizing or faking sources.
It’s really not that hard. There’s this thing called the Internet and another thing called common sense. If you come up with dead ends and phony sites after the first few hits, you are on to something. Likewise, if you find confirmation from other known and reliable sources that tells you something as well.
Now let’s talk about getting out the vote and its crucial importance in the coming election. I believe that there are two forms of voter suppression working to undermine democracy today and that they are equally dangerous. One is the voter suppression that we already talk about when we decry tactics such as gerrymandering, voter purges, poll taxes, various disenfranchisement schemes, machine rigging and other forms of trickery.
The other is less talked about but it is at work constantly and effectively. It is a campaign of hopelessness and powerlessness that discourages people from participating intelligently or at all in the electoral process.
This campaign is carried out in numerous ways, and not just by fake news sites, the Fox network or nefarious “bots.” It includes the suppression of information by the mainstream media through promoting stories that are technically factual but incomplete (the phenomenon that George Carlin famously referred to as “partial scores.” https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/09/19/what-george-carlin-taught-us-about-media-propaganda-by-omission/)
It operates through misleading headlines and through the promotion of biased pundits (whose histories, current employment and potential for bias they conveniently fail to mention) as if they are the only “serious” people in the room. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/01/how-pundits-get-everything-wrong-and-still-keep-their-jobs/ https://theintercept.com/2020/01/06/iran-suleimani-tv-pundits-weapons-industry/?comments=1 https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/whos-paying-pro-war-pundits/
It lurks in editorial decisions about which stories to NOT report on, a form of hidden editorializing.https://truthout.org/articles/the-bernie-blackout-is-real-and-these-screenshots-prove-it/
It takes the form of setting the parameters of debate in the narrowest possible way, ceding the label “conservative” to abject liars occupying the outer reaches of insanity, labeling what used to be considered right wing as “centrist” and what used to be (and still is in most of the developed world) centrist as “far left.” https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/tribalism-exhausted-majority-centrism-david-brooks-democratic-party.html https://fair.org/home/centrist-pundits-paved-way-for-trumps-alt-left-false-equivalence/
And it takes the form of gaslighting, relentlessly driving home the myth that it is impossible and not worth the effort to discern truth from lies, or at least that it is out of the realm of the common person and best left to the “experts.” Don’t encourage the spread of this dangerous myth.
So who benefits from the suppression of information and the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of ordinary voters? Here’s where we get to #5. The “don’t you dare criticize” rule does not apply to the one candidate who represents a credible threat to the powers that be, our corporate overlords and the political, managerial, pundit and consultant classes that serve them.
How do we know this? Go back over your social media feeds. Look for every instance of tut-tutting and finger-wagging about Russia bots, fake news, doing the Republican’s work for them, helping Twitler, or the reflexive mantra, “Blue No Matter Who.” You will find plenty of tut-tutting if you dare to raise Mayor Pete’s problematical reign in South Bend or his dubious career with McKinsey and the intelligence establishment. Fingers will be wagging up a storm if you dare to mention Amy Klobuchar’s history as a “tough on crime” DA or her troublesome record of voting for Trump judges. And don’t you dare wonder what qualified Joe Biden’s troubled son for a six-figure no-show job with a Ukranian gas company or where Joe stood on civil rights back in the day. As for Mike Bloomberg, the raging, racist Republican currently buying his way into the Democratic race, pointing out his 12 year reign of terror against the Black community, the 64 women who have filed abuse and harassment claims against him, or the ravages he committed against low income renters, the working poor and battered middle class in NY…how dare you, you Russian bot! The fact that all of this is true is considered irrelevant. Bloooo no matter whooooo.
Now I challenge you to find a single instance of “party unity at all costs” being thrown at anyone who attacks Bernie Sanders, no matter how vicious, untruthful or debunked their lies are. And please don’t tell me that a man who always caucused with the Democrats, has a solid blue voting record, who leveraged his Independent status to broker some excellent bipartisan legislation when a member of either party couldn’t have done it as effectively and who brought millions of disaffected voters into the Democratic fold is not a Democrat, but Mike Bloomberg, a real Republican with a thin layer of recently acquired blue paint is.
Here are a couple of examples of Bernie slandering that invariably goes unchallenged in liberal, “blue no matter who” circles:
“He never accomplished anything” So here it is again. For the record, this is a pretty comprehensive list of substantive achievements with real world, material benefits for literally millions of his fellow Americans. What I like about this list is that it also has links to every other current candidate so you can compare them https://www.quora.com/Does-Bernie-Sanders-have-a-significant-accomplishment-in-his-28-years-of-Congressional-service Missing from this list is all the bad legislation he voted against, fought and even sometimes modified to do less harm.
Then there’s the endlessly debunked but seemingly un-killable “Bernie Bro” myth, with the implication that we are all entitled young white males who misbehave on the internet. I particularly like this debunk because it traces some of the most egregious posts attributed to “Bernie bros” right back to their right wing troll sources and illustrates the vile attacks on progressives posted by some of the biggest tut-tutters. https://theintercept.com/2016/01/31/the-bernie-bros-narrative-a-cheap-false-campaign-tactic-masquerading-as-journalism-and-social-activism/
I will add that as someone who is definitely not a young, straight male, I really resent the erasure inherent in that meme.
The real irony is that Bernie is the freakin’ FRONT RUNNER in the primary and he trounces Twitler in the head-to-head polls. Electability anyone? I’m waiting for a response from the “It’s all about electability; beating Trump is priority #1 and nothing else matters” people. Crickets.
I could go on, but so could anyone who is paying attention.
So there we have it. Consider the source and all roads lead back to the power elite of both parties. Don’t do their dirty work for them.
*A word about the title: Ok, ok, what can you expect from a former English major? But then, it’s a speech all about whether to embrace life in all its struggle and complexity so as to actively oppose a wrong, or to just give up (and in Hamlet’s case, literally die) to evade the “slings and arrows” of life’s injustice. Which will it be?