The Pizzagate scandal

November 26, 2017

 

This week’s post is about Pizzagate, one of those fake news stories that emerged in 2016 in the month leading up to the presidential election. It is one of those stories that I was vaguely aware of, but I did not know many of the facts. Luckily I heard a podcast from Reveal which looked into this bizarre conspiracy. In Pizzagate: A slice of fake news the podcaster teamed up with Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund “to explore how fake news starts, snowballs and sometimes erupts into gunfire.” The cast of characters includes chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the alt-right, a famous conspiracy theorist, a performance artist, Madeleine McCann and an actor/writer who decided to take the law into his own hands.

“My NYPD source said it’s much more vile and serious. We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring. Not even Hillary’s most ardent supporters and defenders will be able to excuse this!”

The first clue comes from this Facebook post by Carmen Katz that went up on October 29th, last year, just ten days before the election. The reporters saw that Carmen’s profile said that she lived in Joplin, Missouri. Unable to find Carmen Katz in the phone book, they found her real name Cynthia Campbell. They were eventually able to talk to her. She denied any involvement, claiming that her Facebook account had been hacked. Later though her attitude changed and she accused the journalists of the hacking and threatened to sue them.

The starting point for the conspiracy theory goes back to the thousands of hacked the Democratic Party’s emails from the man running the campaign John Podesta. In Podesta’s emails, there are a few references to pizza and a couple of references to Comet Ping Pong, an establishment whose owner Podesta knew, and where Democrats would hold fundraisers. The emails did made lots of references to pizza. Conspiracy theorists on Reddit knew that this had to be some kind of code. Of course it was – cheese pizza had to stand for child pornography.

The story slowly began to gather momentum. Carmen Katz’s original tweet appeared on the Twitter account at David Goldberg in New York. Given the name and that the photo for his avatar was of a man with a large Photoshopped nose, it seems more like an anti-Semitic meme used by White Supremacists. Be that as it may, the post was shared at least 6,000 times on Twitter and was subsequently picked up by a fake news site.YourNewsWire.com.

The story then goes international. The reporter goes off to Macedonia. There in Veles, a depressed former factory town we meet Borcha Pechev, a man who earns a bit of extra cash setting up fake news sites, for which he charges 100 Euro at a time. Veles is said to be the fake news capital of the world. They don’t actually invent fake news there; they just copy and paste it from American fake news sites. And they do not have it in for Hillary – this is strictly a business.

The story was still doing the rounds on the fringes when on November 2nd Alex Jones’s Infowars programme. I have mentioned Mr Jones in previous posts. Trump is known to be a fan. His most notorious claims are probably that 9/11 was a hoax and that nobody actually died in the Sandy Hook shooting. One guest on alleged that there was a child slave colony on Mars. Despite this, or maybe because of this, his show has excellent ratings and he gave the Pizzagate claims fresh impetus.

This particular episode featured an interview with Doug Hagmann, a private investigator from Erie, Pennsylvania. He claimed that:

All of the components are here to expose the greatest perversion, the greatest satanic, and I mean satanic, cabal of people that are associated with Hilary Clinton. And the people in the halls of our power in the United States.

It later emerges that he has no evidence to back up his claim. Jones would eventually apologise for his role in Pizzagate.

You would have thought that Trump winning the election would have seen the story die.  But that didn’t stop the spread of Pizzagate. It actually grew after the election. The story got became huge in Turkey, where it has been suggested that the Islamist conservative Justice and Development Party government wanted to distract attraction from a recent child abuse scandal and from controversial pending legislation on child marriage, which would have made a child rape no longer punishable if the perpetrator offered to marry his victim.

Jack Posobiec, a thirtysomething, an American alt-right activist, went to Comet Ping-Pong, where he used Periscope to live-stream an investigation of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. When he tried to broadcast a child’s birthday party being held in a back room of the restaurant, he was asked to leave.  A New York Times story, which restaurant owner James Alefantis hoped would help debunk the story proved counterproductive. And of course Russia was involved.

A 28-year-old actor/writer (he has a credit for a film on the IMDB) from North Carolina, Edgar Maddison Welch, had become obsessed with the paedophile cabal. It was his duty to save all those innocent kids On December 4th, 2016, armed with a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle, he decided to drive from his home state the miles to the nation’s capital. On the way, he made a suicide video: “girls, I love you all more than anything in this world.” Once he had arrived at Comet Ping Pong restaurant, he started looking for the basement. All he could find was a locked door. He shot it up only to discover, there was no basement. And there were no kids either. He then surrendered to a SWAT team,

After the incident, Michael Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor, Michael T. Flynn, and also a member of Trump’s transition team, tweeted:

Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many “coincidences” tied to it. This tweet may well have been the reason why Flynn Jr. was forced out of Trump’s transition team on December 6, 2016

Welch and he was arraigned on federal charges and pled guilty. Now, his life, and his family’s life, is ruined. The restaurant owner, James Alefantis has also had his life is changed forever by this. The death threats have continued. I really don’t think this wacky conspiracy theory decided the election, but it does show a crazy idea can take on a life of its own. This is nothing new, but social media has made its impact even greater.

 

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1) And what about the performance artist I mentioned in my introduction. The artist in question is Marina Abramović. She was close to John and Tony Podesta. One of the Wikileaks emails referred to a 1996 performance piece Spirit Cooking:

Dear Tony,

I’m so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you would be able to let me know if your brother’s joining?

All my love, Marina

In the oeuvre Abramović wrote a series of absurd dark self-help mantras phrases on the walls of a gallery in pig’s blood. The phrases included:

 Fresh morning urine. Sprinkle over nightmare dreams.”

 “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain.”

 “Mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk. Drink on earthquake nights.”

 “Sitting on a copper chair. Comb your hair with a clear quartz crystal brush, until your memory is released.”

This tied in with the conspiracy theories.

2) According to Wikipedia, conspiracy theorists claimed John and Tony Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann. They claim that the brothers were in Portugal at the time of the kidnapping. The source was the conspiracy website Victurus Libertas, which has also argued that Queen Elizabeth II is a reptilian.

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Monopoly: a brief history and what it tells us about being human

November 12, 2017

 

The Monopoly board game, which was created in 1935, is currently produced in 47 languages and sold in 114 countries. There is a world championship, which is held every four five years. The winningest countries are the United States and Italy with two wins apiece, although the former have not won since 1974. The winner takes home $20,580 – the total amount of play money that comes in each version of the game. I am not sure if this is an apocryphal story, but according to the Chicago Tribune, Fidel Castro was not a fan and banned the game, decreeing that every set be destroyed.

The traditional story behind the creation of the Monopoly was a feelgood one. Its inventor Charles Darrow had been unemployed during the Great Depression. The year was 1933. Desperate to support his family, the unemployed salesman went down his dark, damp basement, where he would toil away until he came up with the game. He developed the game using materials from his own home. The cards were handwritten and the board was covered with a piece of oilcloth.

It is a beautiful story. However, this story is leaving an important part out. It is the role of one woman. The woman in question was Lizzie Magie, a Washington resident, who in 1903 invented the Landlord’s Game. It was ironically intended to be a teaching tool that argued against the concentration of wealth and the injustices of capitalism. It was a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” She was backing the theories of Henry George. This 19th century political economist and journalist saw landlords as parasites and proposed a “single tax” on them to replace all other taxes. The game was not, however, a great success. I guess this is the genius of capitalism. It took Magie’s anti-capitalist idea and turned it into billions of dollars of revenue.

There are numerous versions of monopoly. There have been more than 300 licensed versions of the Monopoly game developed themed with topics such as sports teams, pop groups and movies. There is now a fast version, wcich can be played in an hour, as opposed to the three or fours it usually takes.

The comedian Steven Wright once quipped that he thought that it was wrong that only one company made the game Monopoly. And Parker Brothers in the past, and Hasbro now have indeed aggressively defended its patents. Nevertheless, it has inspired alternative versions. One of my favourites is from Ralph Anspach a professor at San Francisco State University, who was living in Berkeley. His two young boys were playing Monopoly and Anspach didn’t like what he saw. He decided to create his own version – Anti-Monopoly. This led to a long-running legal battle with the official version. More radical was Bertell Ollman, who taught dialectical methodology and socialist theory at New York University. His game was called Class Struggle.

One of the most interesting things I learned while researching this post is a famous social science experiment carried out by social psychologist Paul Piff. He wanted to investigate how wealth changed people’s empathy towards different social classes. As part of his research, Piff ran a study using a rigged Monopoly game involving 100 pairs of strangers. The pairs played games in which the academics randomly picked one player who they would favour. The chosen player started out with more money, threw two dice instead of one, and was given twice as much cash on passing Go. Given all this help, they were bound to win. But what was interesting was how the winners reacted. They ate more of the pretzels that were on the table, became more aggressive and would openly mock their opponents. The put down their winning to their own play and the strategies they had employed. I don’t know how much these experiments shows. It does ring true, though. It speaks to our immense capacity for self-justification.

I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of Monopoly. I can’t remember the last time I played. Nevertheless, I do find the history fascinating.


Does money make you mean?

November 12, 2017

In this video Paul Piff talks about the Monopoly experiment and its wider implications.


Welcome to Fantasyland

October 22, 2017

But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Kurt Andersen writing in The Atlantic

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Before the 2016 the British satirist John Oliver did a piece in which Trump came out with a shocking revelation before the November election. It had all been a hoax – he had just been trying to show how broken the system was. Alas, Trump’s victory is no joke. Kurt Andersen started his new book Fantasyland before Trump had even entered the presidential race. Nevertheless, it provides an indispensable historical guide to recent events.  Andersen looks at the long-running tension between Enlightenment values and magical thinking that has characterised has the former British colony in nearly 500 years of history. On leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned against “the military-industrial complex”. In this book Andersen is more worried about the “fantasy-industrial complex”, the news business, religious, political, and entertainment organisations that have created this Fantasy world. What Andersen shows us is that in America there has been a strong tradition of magical thinking, anti-elitism, scepticism of authority and a desire to ignore reality. This book gives us a historical background. We are not dealing with a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the enabling power of the internet.  I am not going to write about the whole book; rather I am going to look at a couple of the influences that Andersen mentions.

I realise that the term American exceptionalism may be a bit of a cliché, but there is something bizarre about American religion; nobody does religion quite like the Americans. Their society is a product of a country founded by the Puritans in New England who sought to create a Christian utopia, a City on the Hill. This was a theocracy as the faithful waiting for the imminent Second Coming of Christ and the end times. America is a huge, vibrant religious marketplace. Two of its more bizarre creations have been Mormonism, which Andersen describes as the “All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith”, and Scientology. But it goes beyond this. It is such things as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and the prosperity gospel that give certain strands of American Protestantism its unique flavour.

A part of the book I found fascinating was his exploration of the 1960s. A profound shift in thinking emerged in the ’60s – anything and everything became believable. Many in academia turned away from enlightenment values; in particular, we saw the rise of postmodernism. Andersen is not arguing that Donald Trump read Foucault and came to the conclusion that truth was all relative. Indeed, many Conservatives have attacked relativism. Nevertheless, this fast-and-loose attitude towards the truth has been adopted by the right to promote climate-change denial, black helicopter conspiracies*, and increasingly hysteric gun-rights activism and a general anti-science bias. Andersen expresses it like this:

The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.”

I found this book a stimulating read. However, the USA does not have a monopoly on magical thinking. This American idea of reinventing yourself is also what makes America great. What intrigues me is that you have the greatest scientists in the world alongside people who believe that dinosaurs shared our planet and that Noah was able to fit hall the animal species onto the Ark. bout Ben Carson embodies this duality. A candidate in the Republican presidential primaries and currently Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump, Carson came out with the outlandish claim that the pyramids were built to store grain. He has a science background. He was the Director of Paediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland from 1984 until his retirement in 2013. Indeed, he was a pioneer in developing a procedure for the successful separation of conjoined twins joined at the back of the head, and many other innovations. The guy is not stupid.

All this magical thinking has not prevented this country from becoming the world’s leading superpower. Conservatism is not an illogical ideology, but I have to agree with Andersen that in recent years the adoption of magical thinking has been asymmetric. It is frightening the way in which the Republican Party has taken on board this flight from reason. Just look at the recent 2017 special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after he was confirmed as Attorney General. Trump’s candidate was actually preferable to the eventual winner, Roy Moore. Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Ayatollah of Alabama’s” ideas:

  • Moore has stated that the September 11 attacks were a divine punishment for Americans’ declining religiosity and the Sandy Hook shooting was “because we’ve forgotten the law of God.”
  • He has been prominent in the anti-Obama birther movement, which claims that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. He has also argued that the previous president is secretly a Muslim.
  • He believes that homosexuality is inherently evil should be outlawed. It is an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it. Moreover, the legitimization of “sodomy” will cause suffering in the United States.
  • He opposes the theory of evolution, arguing “There is no such thing as evolution. That we came from a snake? No, I don’t believe that

This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. To be frank now I’m feeling nostalgic for George W. How did we come to this? Just imagine if Trump were impeached. I can’t say that the thought of President Pence makes me feel any calmer.

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*Wikipedia defines it thus: Black helicopters is a term which became popular in the United States militia movement and associated political groups in the 1990s as a symbol and warning sign of an alleged conspiratorial military takeover of the United States, though it has also been associated with men in black and similar conspiracies.[citation needed] Rumours circulated that, for instance, the United Nations patrolled the US with unmarked black helicopters, or that federal agents used black helicopters to enforce wildlife laws.

 

 


A couple of videos

October 22, 2017

Here are a couple of videos in which Andersen talks about the ideas in the book:

 


No, Franco is not alive today

October 8, 2017

Even in the worst Franco years I don’t remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on Sunday. If your government annuls your basic democratic rights and cuts off your freedom of expression, if it distracts and confuses public opinion with incendiary messages, what can you do but confront it? That’s why for me the time is up for Catalonia belonging to Spain. We must insist on a binding referendum to decide our future. Jordi Borrell Celades, head of sales at a chemical company based in Barcelona writing I the Guardian

In Catalonia we have seen how the EU does ‘democracy’. Why can’t Remainers see it too? Nigel Farage

_____

Spain is facing its greatest crisis since the Tejero’s attempted coup in 1981. The images of civil guard hitting pensioners who were trying to vote have gone round the world. I have been following the UK media and I can see that Spain has been getting an awful press. Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have all condemned the actions of Spain. Personally I think it was a massive mistsake to send the Civil Guard in. We live in era of soft power and social media in which images and videos can be transmitted in seconds. It is true as Peter Preston argued in today’s Observer that in an age of fake news we need to look into the reliability of the statistics. Apparently one of the pictures that went viral was actually from miners’ strike five years ago. Preston continues:

That woman who had all her fingers broken. She hadn’t. That six-year-old boy, paralysed by police brutality? It didn’t happen. Serious injuries on the day: just two.

Be that as it may it has to be said that the Catalonian government has understood the importance of soft power and getting your message across. But today I want to look at the bigger picture

What has made me increasingly angry over the last few days is the outrageous comparisons with the Spain of Franco.  Mr Borrell’s comment that even in the worst Franco years he could not remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on last Sunday seems to reflect the tone of much of the coverage I have seen. Spain is democracy, an imperfect one. To give just one example Spain introduced gay marriage before the UK, the USA and Germany. The Spanish Civil War is often brought up, but people forget that Madrid and Catalonia were on the same side in this conflict. Franco bombed Madrid! It’s true that more of its politicians should be in prison. But that would also apply to Catalonian politicians who are no slouches when it comes to kickbacks.

What is happening in Catalonia is related to the global financial crisis and the subsequent rise of populist movement. This has seen the rise of the rise of radical parties both on the right and left. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Curiously, as happened in the USA, Russia has been trying to destabilise the situation. Obviously, if there was no sense of dissatisfaction, such attempts would not be successful. It is curious to read articles in the Daily Mail where Brexit supporters attack the EU for not intervening in a sovereign state. Isn’t that what they what they are against?

España nos roba – Spain is robbing us is what you hear in Catalonia. Financial arrangements can always be negotiated. But when I hear that Catalonia pays more than it gets back, I shake my head. But this is perfectly normal it is the third richest region of Spain behind Madrid and the Basque Country. To complain about this is like France complaining about paying more into the European Union than it gets out.  In this sense there are parallels with the Lega Nord in Italy, who resent paying for the lazy southerners.

When I hear the term self-determination, I do get a bit nervous. It sounds like a wonderful idea. Woodrow Wilson wanted loads of it in the Treaties of Paris after WWI It didn’t turn out so well did it? Country borders are complex. Whenever you create a new state, within those states there are minorities. Territorial integrity is not something that should be thrown aside lightly; I admit I prefer stability. The fact that it is not easy to create a new state is a good thing. I had hoped in the 1990s that with the EU this kind of nationalism was waning.  How wrong I was! The backlash of the last few years has been sobering.

I also wanted to look at how most Spanish people have such a negative perception of last Sunday’s vote, many even compare it to a coup d’état. In the UK there is no written constitution, which allows a more flexible approach. Under the Spanish Constitution sovereignty rests with the whole of the Spanish people. You may criticise this but it is not undemocratic and this constitution was voted for in 1978 with a massive majority including in Catalonia itself. There are rules to be followed and the Govern has ridden roughshod over them. And I would like to know if the constitution of a newly independent Catalonia will include the right for self-determination within its borders

If Catalonia were to become independent, they would be out of the European Union. Even if Spain didn’t veto their membership, I think that other European countries, with their own potentially rebellious regions, would view an independent Catalonia with any relish whatsoever. It will certainly be an adventure. Robert Hardman, writing in the Daily Mail tried to play down the dangers:

Meanwhile, Catalonia is now being warned of the usual plagues straight out of the Remain camp’s Project Fear handbook.

Alas, I fear that the outlook for the Catalonian economy in the short and medium term at least is not great.  A number of banks and other companies have already decided to move their headquarters to other Spanish cities. If independence came, it could become would the last company to leave Catalonia, please turn out the lights? Reality is not optional. Of course we have seen how emotions can make people vote against their interests.

We are living in interesting times. I have to admit that I’m rather worried. This has been a massive political failure. The Spanish government has a delicate tightrope to walk. On the one hand they do not want to see constitutional order undermined, but if they are too heavy-handed there will be a powerful backlash in Catalonia. There will have to be some kind of negotiation. Maybe the constitution will have to be revisited But I don’t see the consensus for it. I’m a bit pessimistic. Many of the people in Catalonia who favour remaining in Spain, the majority still in recent polls, are the older generation. They will die off. The younger generation brought up (indoctrinated?) in a pro independence climate are going to be the majority. Will they be satisfied with greater autonomy?

 


Misleading or what?

June 17, 2017

This week Fox News finally dropped its fair and balanced slogan, which was introduced by the US channel’s founder, the late Roger Ailes, when he set it up in 1996. For a channel whose presenters have included Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck this is stretching it a bit. Trump’s favourite news channel now has a replacement is “Most Watched. Most Trusted.”

This got me thinking about misleading names and slogans. A quick search on the internet found the following:
• Flying lemurs are neither lemurs nor do they fly.
• Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canal.
• While dry cleaning may not involve water, it does require the use of liquid solvents.
• Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. The game, which was invented in Germany, was rebranded Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892; the name was changed to make the game more marketable in 1928, the year in which my father was born.

But it is in politics that these questions become interesting. We have joke names like the German Democratic Republic or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is anything but. The National Bolshevik Party sounds Marxist, but is in reality a right-wing, anti-Semitic fringe party. Although I do seem to remember in my history class that Bolshevik is Russian for member of the majority faction. This was itself an example of a manipulative use of language as they weren’t really the majority.

Both Left and right use words as weapons. One successful example was the term dementia tax to describe the Conservative policy of counting people’s home as an asset when it comes to paying for the care. It was highly effective. I did hear one criticism that it was borrowing the right’s meme of taxes as something negative, as in expressions such as tax relief. By adding relief to tax you are implying that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. In a post I did about metaphors I mentioned the linguist George Lakoff, who wanted Democrats to talk about membership fees, what you pay to live in a civilized, democratic society. I really don’t see that one working, but I might be wrong. This is what Lakoff calls framing. He argues that successful political discourse is able to impose its metaphors over those of the opposition. You are implying that the earth is a big, huggable Gaia that can be befriended. Those for and against abortion like to frame the debate with pro-choice and pro-life. I haven’t read Unspeak, but I have seen these videos.

A different point of view is that of the Guardian’s Steven Poole, who coined the term Unspeak. In this sense Poole is an heir of George Orwell and his language of tyranny, newspeak. Wikipedia has a glossary of Newspeak:
doublethink the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct
goodsex intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children and without physical pleasure
thoughtcrime – the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question Ingsoc
Unperson – someone who has been “vaporized”—not only killed by the state, but erased from existence.

Unspeak is a term or phrase that contains an unstated political argument. In the book, which he published more than a decade ago he took eight words – community, nature, tragedy, operations, terror, abuse; freedom and extremism – to show how they can be used to frame the debate. He gives some examples. For example if you say Friends of the Earth, does that make your opponents enemies of the earth? Unlike Lakoff, Poole thinks that fighting unspeak with unspeak is a bad tactic. From what I have read about human psychology it is naïve to think you can win arguments based on pure rationality.