Facebook Is Not Your Friend

Mark Zuckerberg invoked the iconic figures of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. when defending why his company will allow political candidates to lie with reckless abandon. Wait, what? (Photo Credit: Anthony Quintano/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Q: What kind of company views the very existence of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign as an “existential threat?”

A: Facebook, and the doom-and-gloom terms in which it frames this discussion tell you all you need to know about whose side it’s on.

What’s Mark Zuckerberg and Co.’s bugaboo about the progressive Democrat’s candidacy? Senator Warren doesn’t seem like the most physically imposing character. Could one woman really represent that much of a danger to a corporation worth billions of dollars?

Well, if she becomes President of the United States, perhaps. As a Democratic senator from the state of Massachusetts, Warren has built a profile championing corporate accountability and emphasizing standing up for the rights of end users of companies’ goods and services. Despite Joe Biden’s attempt to take credit for it in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, her signature achievement heretofore is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation explicitly and singularly devoted to safeguarding average Americans in their solicitation of financial services.

On a related note, Warren has been a vocal critic of Wells Fargo and its executive leadership, memorably grilling then-CEO John Stumpf in 2016 during a Senate Banking Committee hearing about the banking giant’s underhanded business practices and later advocating for the institution to remain under a growth cap imposed by the Fed until it can evidence a willingness to comply with standards of equitable behavior. Seeing as Wells Fargo has seen a revolving door at the top since then and still languishes under an asset restriction, it appears her concerns are more than warranted.

Broadly speaking then, Elizabeth Warren represents a desire to more directly regulate corporate America, including the tech sector, distinguishing herself from rival Bernie Sanders as an adherent of capitalism rather than a self-described democratic socialist. For Facebook, meanwhile, an organization predicated on selling and manipulating user data which might have and should have faced stronger repercussions for the breadth of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this does not compute.

Understandably, monoliths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google don’t wish to have their size or power circumscribed. The same applies to the big banks, who have met likewise with Sen. Sanders’s ire and calls for separation of their traditional banking elements and more speculative financial services. How Facebook is going about trying to resist demands for greater accountability, however, deserves every bit of admonishment and scrutiny.

Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former adviser to both Facebook and the Obama administration, is one of the growing lot who believes it’s time for Facebook to be more strictly regulated. Ghosh’s sentiments come on the heels of an announcement by the social media titan that it won’t censor or even fact-check politicians despite the notion these ads may contain false or misleading claims.

To be fair, actors across the political spectrum are prone to false or misleading content in their political advertisements; Sen. Warren’s campaign, for a bit of shock value, recently led its own Facebook ad with the notion that Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election before admitting within the same space that that wasn’t literally true. (In response, the Facebook Newsroom Twitter account sent a rebuke of sorts referencing the ad, which is vaguely astonishing in itself.) Nonetheless, when a policy shift clearly benefits lying liars who lie such as Trump, such a move gives pause.

Let’s get one thing straight: Donald Trump is not a smart man, but he ain’t no dummy either. This is to say that he knows how to take advantage of an institution which helps his bottom line, and his campaign has exploited Facebook’s refusal to remove disingenuous political content with heavy investment in advertising through this medium as well as Google. While Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s alleged malfeasance have been a frequent target of Trump’s scorn—even though there is no evidence to suggest the Bidens have done anything improper and, ahem, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones—the falsehoods and rules violations have been widespread and numerous. In a way, this spending is a perfect microcosm of a presidency marked by its own flagrant falsehoods and rules violations.

For his part, Zuckerberg has sought to defend Facebook’s new open-door political advertising policy on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—what?—in making his case across media outlets and envisioning his company as one which charitably allows for freedom of expression. Much as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or yell “Bomb!” on a airplane with impunity, though, if you’re a platform with the influence and reach of Facebook, you can’t let other people and entities with influence and reach wantonly peddle their lies—or at least you shouldn’t be able to. At the very least, if you’re going to enforce the rules (or not enforce them), you should do so without apparent political prejudice.

Ay, here’s the rub: for all the accusations of a liberal bias on platforms like Facebook, the company’s actions and its very structure suggest a complicity with conservatism and conservative figures/outlets. Over the past few weeks, Judd Legum has practically made Facebook’s dalliances with right-wing favoritism the raison d’être of his newsletter Popular Information. Among the items Legum has cataloged:

  • Zuckerberg meeting with Tucker Carlson and other conservative commentators and journalists to discuss matters of free speech and partnership, and Facebook naming the Daily Caller as a fact-checking partner despite a history of inaccuracies (to put it mildly)
  • Facebook stacking its D.C. office top leadership with veterans of Republican politics
  • Zuckerberg falsely claiming Facebook was created in response to and as a means to facilitate conversation about the Iraq War and other conflicts
  • Facebook permitting coordinated inauthentic behavior by the Daily Wire, originally Ben Shapiro’s baby, while acting to outlaw the same practices from progressive sources
  • Facebook failing to override its automated controls to flag and ban content for Black Lives Matter groups, LGBTQ activists, left-leaning small publications, and others forums which may be critical of conservative views

All this has made for a climate at Facebook hinting at a “frightening new world for political communication,” as Ghosh phrases it. He writes:

It is now the case that leading politicians can openly spread political lies without repercussion. Indeed, the Trump campaign was already spreading other falsehoods through online advertising immediately before Facebook made its announcement — and as one might predict, most of those advertisements have not been removed from the platform.

Should our politicians fail to reform regulations for internet platforms and digital advertising, our political future will be at risk. The 2016 election revealed the tremendous harm to the American democratic process that can result from coordinated misinformation campaigns; 2020 will be far worse if we do nothing to contain the capacity for politicians to lie on social media.

Could the Trump presidential campaign engage in the same kind of chicanery it did in 2016 and still lose in 2020? Sure. In fact, if the results of that election were based solely on the popular vote, Trump never would’ve been elected. Still, Facebook is playing a dangerous game, one which invites great risk to the American political process without much risk to its own survival and which allies the company with disreputable (outside of conservative circles anyway) people like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson. It is deliberately trying to sway the election to serve the desires of executive leadership, whether it legitimately believes the kind of rhetoric from publications like the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire or not.

In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are making it clear they are acting only in their own selfish interests. That doesn’t sound like something either Frederick Douglass or MLK would’ve wanted.


When we talk about Facebook’s sense of responsibility regarding how it handles user data and the veracity of claims in advertising that appear on the site, opinions may vary with respect to how culpable we truly believe Mark Zuckerberg et al. to be. If we were to take, say, a Friedman-esque examination of things, we might aver that if Facebook is financially responsible to its shareholders and isn’t breaking the law outright, deliberations about corporate social responsibility are much ado about nothing. In other words, while we might find Facebook’s actions objectionable, as far as leadership may be concerned, they are doing what’s best for the business. At heart, that is priority one.

In this day and age, however, such a perspective is a minority opinion. Personal and organizational accountability matter, even if not everyone agrees on how we can enforce adherence to a certain standard of conduct. Fines against a company may look like an appropriate punishment, but not only might these sums function as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket for corporations like Facebook, they don’t get at the personnel and the faulty leadership structures to blame for such lapses or intentional misdeeds.

What’s more, assigning guilt to an entity without the capacity for feeling guilty (i.e. a corporation is not a person) arguably is of limited utility and may only serve to ensnare lower-level accomplices or negatively impact workers on the lower links of the food chain. Much in the way #MeToo can be scrutinized for how much change it has effected and how durable its assignment of repercussions, there is room to wonder how punitive these measures truly are for major players in the U.S. economy, especially within the tech sector. Both in terms of applicable statutes and defined ethical frameworks, we seem to be lagging behind Silicon Valley’s attempts to define itself as an adjudicator of moral standards.

So, what’s the answer? Owing to the complexity of the question re individual vs. company-wide responsibility, the potential solutions are manifold, but some part of what actions should be taken would seem to involve government intervention. As noted, Dipayan Ghosh, for one, believes it’s time to regulate. From the closing of his piece:

If Facebook cannot take appropriate action and remove paid political lies from its platform, the only answer must be earnest regulation of the company — regulation that forces Facebook to be transparent about the nature of political ads and prevents it from propagating political falsehoods, even if they are enthusiastically distributed by President Trump.

Our nation has always aspired to place the interests of our democratic purpose over the interests of markets. Silicon Valley should be no exception.

Going back to Elizabeth Warren, supposed existential threat that she is, she advocates going a step further and breaking up monopolistic tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, even going as far as to call for the undoing of certain mergers such as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and Facebook’s ownership of Instagram. Zuckerberg, in the leaked audio from a Facebook employee meeting that produced his quote about Warren in the first place, acknowledges the likelihood of a lawsuit to combat such a move, in the same breath expressing his confidence that the company would be successful in an eventual legal challenge. Are Warren’s plans unrealistic? Is Zuckerberg overconfident in this instance? By now, we’re used to big businesses winning, but the courts, interpreting existing antitrust law, may yet favor would-be regulators.

To say the least therefore, the fight over Facebook’s open-door political advertising policy appears far from over. In the meantime, and barring a course change like that of Twitter’s to ban all political ads (personally, I don’t love the idea the company is just throwing up its hands and waiving its potential to be a model actor, but it’s better than doing nothing), what you can be sure of is that, Facebook, a company which has never meaningfully apologized for the large-scale breach of trust exposed by the Cambridge Analytica bombshell, is not your friend. You may like being able to connect with family and friends and share photos and do all the things the social media platform is capable of doing. But executive leadership is neither truly interested in your privacy nor the sanctity of the First Amendment, and if you’re using the service, you’re implicitly giving your assent to their disregard of both. Whether that’s a deal-breaker is up to you.

Not the Sharp(i)est Tool in the Shed

This collection of angular squiggles is apparently Donald Trump’s signature. Yikes.

As the science of graphology would have it, you can tell a lot about a person from his or her handwriting.

According to this article for Cosmopolitan from February of 2017, Donald Trump’s signature and handwriting reveal some, well, not-so-flattering character traits. He’s aggressive, as indicated by his sharp, angular lettering within minimal space between letters. He needs attention, as evidenced by his big, bold lettering and heavy use of capitalization. His use of block print is considered “bullish.” The absence of curves in his signature shows he is an unfeeling, humorless sort. The pressure he exerts on the paper when he writes signifies defensiveness. And last but perhaps not least, the “P” in Trump is a manly, phallic gesture—over-sized and overwrought.

Of course, you can take or leave this analysis. Graphology is regarded by many as a pseudoscience, no better than astrology in predicting job performance and personality. If someone dislikes Trump, he or she may easily ascribe various flaws to him and his penmanship using vague analysis. You may also choose not to value the insights of past and present Cosmo contributors, though I am not one to judge a book by its cover. Especially when it promises to teach me sexual positions so hot they will burn a hole in the bed.

Graphological profiles aside, it is perhaps odd and telling that Trump enjoys using Sharpie markers. After all, writing in permanent marker isn’t subtle, and we all know the president is anything but subtle when it comes to his public persona. This is relevant in light of Trump’s recent attempt to indicate Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian by referring to a map he altered with a Sharpie.

His account was specifically refuted by the National Weather Service out of Birmingham and appeared to be based on outdated forecast models that gave Alabama no more than a 20% chance to feel the impact of the storm’s winds in the first place. Yet, after the fact and despite the evidence against him, Trump continues to defend including Alabama in the preparation for Dorian—in cartoonish fashion, no less—saying he was with the so-called “Heart of Dixie” all the way and more so than the “Fake News” anyway. Weird flex but OK, Mr. President.

But yes, the Sharpie business. Michael D’Antonio, author, CNN contributor, journalist, and Trump biographer, recently penned a piece about Trump’s love for the iconic permanent marker brand. For D’Antonio, Trump’s affiliation for Sharpie markers is decidedly on-brand, though it may not speak as highly for the person who wields it as he might believe or hope.

As a Trump biographer, D’Antonio is well familiar with the man’s predilection for all things Sharpie. Regular Sharpie markers. Gold Sharpie markers, for when he wants to make things especially fancy. From D’Antonio’s perspective and from what he knows of Trump, this makes sense. He writes:

The blunt quality of a Sharpie fits Trump’s personality. Its thick barrel and wide tip make it impossible to write with any delicacy. If you want to make your message clear, you are forced to write in big strokes. Similarly, the thick lines produced by a Sharpie provide a cover for the writer who wants to tease with an impossible-to-read signature like Trump’s saw-tooth autograph. A Sharpie-writer forces others to pay closer attention.

Big, bold strokes. A saw-tooth signature. A lack of delicacy and need for attention. These are not unlike the observations from the graphologists we read earlier, as much as we might dismiss them as the product of pop science.

D’Antonio’s revelations in them of themselves aren’t earth-shattering. We have a humanitarian crisis at our southern border and a climate emergency facing the planet and we’re talking about the president’s penmanship? Believe me, I get it.

The bit about changing the map of Hurricane Dorian’s projected path, however, is more intriguing. D’Antonio closes his article with these sentiments:

Trump’s choice of pen is about his desire to make a permanent mark. But here the tool that the White House selected — it is unclear whether or not Trump himself made the alteration — to make an impression seems to reveal more than Trump might have wanted. Like a grade-schooler’s attempt to turn a report card D into a B the line added to the weather map only drew more attention to the reality the scrawl was intended to cover-up. Ill-informed about the hurricane he was supposedly monitoring, our President offered not the truth but a forgery. He thinks we’re too stupid to recognize a Sharpie line added to a weather map, but we see it as clearly as we discern his juvenile character.

By now, we have apparent confirmation Trump was the one to edit the map. As some commentators might otherwise have insisted, “Who else would’ve done something like that?” Regardless of who actually wielded the Sharpie, the purpose was clear: to deceive. I’m giving you the truth, not the fake news media. I alone care about you, Alabama.

That his “forgery” wasn’t a particularly good one is all the more fitting in light of his track record. From the jump, President Trump and his flunkies tried to spin his lower inauguration attendance numbers relative to Barack Obama as “alternative facts,” camera angles, photo tricks, or some other mainstream trickery. Trump has made a career of being a fraud and con man, and often not in very convincing fashion either. While nothing new, and probably not even on his Top 10 worst offenses since taking the Oath of Office, this episode still must be decried for the attempted chicanery it is. That this kind of thing is still happening this far into his presidency is all the more galling and reinforces how patently un-presidential Trump is.

And to think, this is all with respect to his handwritten offerings. We haven’t even touched his haphazard tweets, “covfefe” and all. Back in January, John McWhorter, linguistics teacher at Columbia at contributing editor at The Atlantic, shined a spotlight on Trump’s myriad typographical errors.

As McWhorter argues, it’s one thing that the president’s Twitter ramblings lack polish or delicacy. We all have our faults, including where the written word is concerned, and besides, Twitter isn’t a medium known for its observation of formality. It’s another that his expressions betray a lack of consideration or thought, a notion magnified by the fact he is well, the freaking President of the United States. Trump simply couldn’t be bothered to check his writing before sending it out—or have someone else do it.

McWhorter doesn’t stop there. Even Trump’s vocalized speech reflects a lack of deliberation, variation, and frankly, maturity. He overuses words like “do,” eschewing more specific verbs for those he finds more accessible or familiar. He also, ahem, overdoes it with “very,” “good,” and other vague modifiers that merely inflate the volume of his words rather than relying on substance.

The crux of the matter? Trump is an idiot. OK, that’s a bit harsh, but he’s clearly exhibiting neither a capacity nor desire for higher-order thought. McWhorter closes with these thoughts:

Trump’s admirers might see him as a straight shooter, focused on telling us what’s on his mind, too busy doing the right things to bother with niceties. The tragedy is that in his hurried, lexically impoverished blurts, Trump almost daily shows us that what’s on his mind is very little.

“What’s on his mind is very little.” This is not necessarily something you want to hear said about the ostensible leader of the free world, someone with access to our nation’s nuclear codes, no less. As remote as the possibility sounds, so too did the odds of his presidency coming to fruition once seem. In other words, we may not wish to take this lightly.


Some people, despite an abundance of evidence of Donald Trump’s inept disingenuousness (not to mention his abject cruelty toward those unlike him), will never sour on him. This post is obviously not for them, and they’d probably be quick to unleash their vitriol upon it along with Michael D’Antonio’s and John McWhorter’s offerings. We’re part of a “liberal media” intent on vilifying a great man and on hating the U.S.A. We look down upon hard-working Americans from atop our ivory towers of opinion journalism. Why don’t we learn to enjoy our robust U.S. economy and other elements of the nation at present? If we dislike our president and others within it so much, why don’t we just leave?

To the extent they or I might gaze at my fellow man condescendingly, I cannot rightly say. From what I can tell, D’Antonio and McWhorter didn’t write anything particularly deprecating outside of their criticism of Trump. D’Antonio merely made observations about Trump’s fanatical use of permanent markers. McWhorter highlighted how the president’s speech reflects a lack of preparation and nuance, but his criticisms are aimed at Trump specifically because he is a world leader imbued with a great deal of responsibility. I may despise Trump, but I have no great disdain for those who believe in him because they believe in a better life for themselves and others around them. That is, while I might disagree with them, I don’t begrudge the folks who act in good faith. As strange as that might sound to some, I believe they do yet exist.

It is those individuals who see Trump for who he is, meanwhile, and opt to back him anyway, at whom I dedicate this post and with whom I take issue. Trump and his rabid supporters talk negatively about the media and even some politicians like Ilhan Omar who supposedly have nothing but disdain for “the common man.” On Omar’s behalf, I categorically reject this assertion, but fine, I’ll concede that some members of the news media evince signs of elitism.

Not merely to point the finger back at Trump, however, but what about him? This is a man who has touted his Ivy League education (it apparently didn’t do him that much good, but whatever) and has slapped his name on everything from buildings to steaks in the name of luxury. What does he know about the common man, the common man of whom he evidently thinks very little?

After all, he believes he could shoot someone in broad daylight and still get elected, and on this most recent note, he thinks you’re too stupid to realize that he drew something on a map of a hurricane’s projected path and that it wasn’t there the whole time. Again, not the worst thing he and his administration have done by a longshot. But that he would insist up is down as a matter of being a hypocritical fraud is another turn in the tenure of a would-be fascist, and we shouldn’t be downplaying this, as laughable as it is.

In other words, some lines aren’t meant to be crossed. They also aren’t meant to be added to a weather map with Sharpie marker to unnecessarily stoke fear or exploit a crisis for political capital. Donald Trump is banking on the idea you won’t know or care enough to want to hold him accountable on this front. Don’t give him the satisfaction.

Do We Really Need Al Franken?

Al Franken’s alleged groping of several women may not be the same level of purported offense as that of Donald Trump or Roy Moore. That doesn’t mean we can’t hold him to a minimum standard of conduct, however, and it certainly doesn’t mean we “need him back” in any capacity. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 4.0)

As concerns the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, perhaps no figure encapsulates its potential divisiveness and difficult contemplations like Al Franken.

It’s been over a year-and-a-half since Franken resigned from his post as U.S. Senator from the state of Minnesota, but his case is one that media figures and political junkies alike feel the need to relitigate. Jane Mayer’s recent essay for The New Yorker is the latest high-profile entry in people’s meditations on whether he should’ve resigned.

Mayer considers a lot of angles in her examination of this subject matter: the precipitousness of his fall from grace after once being considered a possible challenger to Donald Trump in 2020, the regret he and numerous former colleagues feel, contrasts with Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s records, the evolution of accuser Leeann Tweeden’s account of sexual misconduct, the nature of U.S.O. shows like the one Franken did with Tweeden and the content of the skit prompting her accusations, character witness accounts on his behalf, proposed logical faults taken with Tweeden’s characterizations of the incident and ruminations on her credibility, FOX News personalities’ personal ax to grind with Franken, that allegations against Roy Moore were fresh in the minds of many, Franken’s physical awkwardness, allegations from other accusers, concerns about lack of due process, the role Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democratic colleagues played in calling for his resignation, the notion that not all accounts of abuse are made equal. In this regard, Mayer’s piece seems reasonably well considered.

This effort to reclaim Franken’s image is arguably not without its problems, however. On one hand, Tweeden’s failure or refusal to acknowledge the context in which the U.S.O. skit was performed and its content (there is a scene of a breast exam in the skit, to which the infamous photo of Franken and Tweeden presumably refers) are curious omissions. Acknowledging this wouldn’t make her accusations any less valid.

On the other hand, we might rightly object at various points in Mayer’s analysis. For one, comparisons to Biden and Trump are whataboutism, pure and simple. We’re talking about Franken here. Their supposed misdeeds are irrelevant to the deliberation at hand. Certain aspects of Tweeden’s life which apparently go to her believability are also of questionable application. Tweeden may have fabricated or embellished whether or not she could’ve gotten into Harvard in the past. She is a noted conservative who has professed admiration for Trump and has appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to talk about birtherism, and she may have a personal animus against the liberal Franken, whose political star was on the rise prior to the events which led to his resignation.

None of this means she is necessarily lying about being assaulted or interpreting Franken’s actions in this way, though, nor do the motivations of any of his accusers or the people who called for his resignation. Gillibrand, who continues to be lambasted for being among the first to publicly call for Franken’s resignation, points out that she didn’t end his Senate career—he did. He could’ve opted to soldier on despite the allegations against him and regardless of the strain it put on Gillibrand and Co.

Jeet Heer, national-affairs correspondent at The Nation, addresses Mayer’s article and notions that Franken was “railroaded” or otherwise was a victim of circumstances, as she might make it seem. Like Mayer, Heer alludes to Franken as a sort of “ghost” haunting the Democratic Party with claims he was all but forced out without consideration of due process.

Heer concedes that Tweeden’s account of unwanted touching and kissing “has all the earmarks of a politically motivated smear.” The problem: there are still seven other accusers. Mayer’s juxtaposition of this alongside Franken’s physical “obtuseness” makes for a strange defense. All his accusers are women and their allegations are of a sexual nature. It’s more than just his being a “hugger.”

There’s also the matter of Franken’s defenders weighing his actions against the Harvey Weinsteins and Strom Thurmonds of the world. Again, in contrast to partisan relativism, Heer speaks to “setting a minimum standard of respect,” regardless of political affiliation or likability. For that matter, all the people jumping at the chance to exonerate Franken or come to his defense because of what they “know” about him is not a guarantee. What they think they know may be dependent on their limited interactions with him or what he allows others to see. I’m not saying the reverse can’t be true, mind you, but human beings are, well, complicated.

As Heer cites Rebecca Traister, New York magazine writer-at-large, if Franken took a leave of absence to re-examine the effect his conduct might have had on women in his life and later came back to speak to women’s rights and the responsibility of men in the #MeToo era, he might still be serving the people of Minnesota in an official capacity today. It was his silence and the conviction he’d be given ample time and a thorough investigation into his affairs that was his undoing—fair or unfair.

Heer takes this a step further in closing by saying that Franken’s playing the victim betrays his lack of understanding of the whole situation and creates a barrier to any real sense of redemption in the future. He writes:

If we want #MeToo to be effective, we need to be careful to distinguish between major criminals and petty transgressors. We also need to figure out how to reintegrate figures like Franken into society. But you can’t have forgiveness without contrition. To this day, Franken sees himself as a victim. Until that changes, there can be no healing.

In his resignation speech back in 2018, Franken was anything but contrite. Instead, he insisted that he knows who he really is and considered it an irony that he was leaving office while Trump, who once bragged about groping women, is president and Moore, who has preyed on young women, has political aspirations. His parting remarks, draped in comparisons to the worst the GOP has to offer, offered sentiments of “no regrets.” It bears wondering whether his accusers could or would say the same, even assuming the small magnitude of his purported offenses.


A big question I have in relation to Jane Mayer’s essay and why The New Yorker felt the need to publish it is: why now? Why are we reconsidering Al Franken’s fall with everything going on with the 2020 presidential race looming, the Trump administration, and any number of crises facing the country and the world today?

Part of the answer would seem to lie with the notion we need someone like Franken in American political discourse. Last year, Bill Maher, in a brave act of defending another white male like himself, expressed the belief that we need a comedian like Franken to ridicule Donald Trump and take down other “rightwing blowhards.” In doing so, he assailed the credibility of Leeann Tweeden, minimized the charges of Franken’s other accusers, and shot back at “purists” who overreact only to suffer from buyer’s remorse later on.

More recently, Pete Buttigieg, when asked during a town hall whether he would’ve called for Franken’s ouster, replied that he “would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more.” It probably helps that Buttigieg has raised funds alongside big-bucks Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who previously endorsed Kamala Harris despite the fact she was one of the first Senate Democrats to advocate for Franken’s resignation and who has made public positions on the end of Franken’s tenure somewhat of a sticking point. Evidently, the goal is to beat Trump by any means necessary—even it means compromising our moral standards.

To the extent that Franken could add to the discussion on resisting Trump, his absence is regrettable. Are his talents so unique that a void like his in American politics can’t be filled, however? This much seems dubious. To say that Franken was one of the more interesting members of the Senate isn’t saying much. For the integral role Congress plays in shaping the American experience, it is filled with boring people and uninspired ideas. This reality doesn’t obviate the public’s responsibility to hold these public servants accountable and to actively participate in issue advocacy, mind you. Then again, even if this doesn’t excuse voters tuning out, you can sort of understand why they do.

If the Democrats are that desperate to have Franken back because he is the only one who can stand up to Trump or the only one who possesses the requisite skill to ridicule him to the point it rattles him, however, it would seem there are bigger problems within the Democratic Party. It’s along the lines of needing Jon Stewart back as a voice of empathy, reason, and wit in late-night television. Do I miss him? Of course. But if we can’t find others who can approach his level of thoughtful criticism and oddball humor, we might be in more trouble than we know.

One of the lessons of the #MeToo era with which people still appear to be grappling is that men who abuse their fame or position of influence are infinitely replaceable. (The label of “abuser” does not apply to Stewart, to be clear; I invoked him simply as an illustration of my earlier point.) Louis C.K., while clearly talented, is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to stand-up comedy. Nor is Kevin Spacey God’s gift to acting. Without wanting to seem cruel, life goes on. If we can’t meet the need for artists, politicians, producers, writers, and other professionals without sanctioning their alleged violations of boundaries, we’ve clearly failed as a society. No amount of good deeds, intelligence, leadership skills, or talent should supersede another’s right to his or her bodily autonomy and physical safety.

Will Al Franken ever return to the limelight, and with that, U.S. politics? Who knows? In the event he doesn’t, it may be ultimately be unfair to him, though the number of credible accusations against him suggests otherwise. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t feel he needs to apologize because he did nothing wrong. Regardless, though some of us may want him back, that doesn’t signify a need. Yes, we should talk about how and whether to weigh the offenses in each case. Yes, we should discuss how to handle less-than-perfect accusers. But we can do so looking forward rather than back.

Bret Stephens Sucks, Or, When Punditry Goes Awry

Despite growing up in Mexico and speaking Spanish fluently, Bret Stephens espouses us-versus-them attitudes and lambasts Democrats for their support of undocumented immigrants. How cool! (Photo Credit: Veni Markovski/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Despite President Donald Trump’s umpteen comments in reference to the “failing” New York Times, the “Fake News Washington Post,” and other notable publications critical of his leadership, there has been a lot of good reporting during his tenure in the White House and in the campaign leading up to the election.

It is good reporting borne out of necessity, prompted by an administration in disarray built on a complete disregard for transparency and truth. Alas, there has also been some less-than-good reporting and/or questionable editorial oversight in recent times. Frequently, media outlets will report Trump’s public comments at face value, devoid of meaningful context. “President Trump accuses Democrats of election fraud.” Right, but what about the idea he is doing so without citing any credible evidence? For the love of journalistic integrity, call a spade a spade, won’t you?

If reporting on Trump’s failed stewardship of the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City or the utter fraud behind Trump University or his repeated aggressive sexual behavior in and out of marriage or his stance on the Central Park Five and advocacy for their execution is the good, and reporting on, say, Stephen Miller eating glue as a child is the bad, the ugly may be the out-of-touch views promulgated by today’s television pundits and columnists, many of them white males who refuse to check their privilege at the door.

Case in point, Bret Stephens, whose work, according to many familiar with it, is a repository for bad takes. In a recent column for the New York Times, Stephens opined that the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the first round of presidential debates, is off to a “wretched start” in advance of 2020 and “seems interested in helping everyone except the voters it needs.”

Let’s put aside our puzzlement over why Stephens, a conservative notorious for being a climate change “agnostic” (as he terms it), feels he needs to criticize the Dems declared for presidential runs in this way even noting his frequent criticism of President Trump. The startlingly crude viewpoints in his piece speak for themselves. In particular, this passage drew jeers and censure from the blogosphere/Twitterverse:

In this week’s Democratic debates, it wasn’t just individual candidates who presented themselves to the public. It was also the party itself. What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off. They don’t pay the premiums for private health insurance. We’re supposed to give up ours in exchange for some V.A.-type nightmare. They didn’t start enterprises that create employment and drive innovation. We’re expected to join the candidates in demonizing the job-creators, breaking up their businesses and taxing them to the hilt.

As numerous critics have pointed out, for Stephens, who spent his childhood in Mexico and is fluent in Spanish, to lump himself in with the “this is America, we speak English” crowd is woefully disingenuous. You know, unless he suffered a head injury that has caused him to forget the Spanish he learned as well as the very fact he speaks it, which in that case, my condolences.

More than that, though, the dehumanizing “them-versus-us” rhetoric at a time when migrant families are being indefinitely detained en masse in substandard facilities (the term “facilities,” in many cases, is a generous one) without legal representation or even being charged with a crime is chilling. Not to mention it’s riddled with inaccuracies as a function of being grounded in nativism and trickle-down hogwash.

They broke the rules, even though seeking asylum is supposed to be legal. They don’t pay taxes, even though they do. They got themselves into debt. Who? Are we talking about undocumented immigrants here or college students/young adults born in the States, whose issues with repaying their student loans are nothing at which to scoff? And spare me the “job-creators, taxed to the hilt” line. If we’re talking about multinational corporations, some of them have gotten exceedingly proficient in paying little to no taxes while forgoing investment in their employees and the surrounding communities for the sake of relentlessly seeking profit. In this respect, creating jobs (which may not even be that rewarding for the job-holders in the first place) is the least they could do.

Stephens isn’t the only one at the Times trafficking in self-centered moderate conservative whining. In his own reaction column to the Democratic debates, David Brooks, another Never-Trumper, pleads with Democrats not to “drive him away,” taking it upon himself to speak for the 35% of American voters who identify as “moderates.”

In doing so, he decries how “the party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable.” Americans like their health plans. The economy is doing well (yay, capitalism!). These candidates sound like they want open borders, which has lost progressives elections elsewhere around the world. There’s too much raging against the top 1% and not against the top 20% (the upper middle class).

There’s that concept again: “electability.” It’s a concept everyone seems to profess knowing a lot about without being able to clearly define it. Will advocating for Medicare for All (which, by the by, has broad support from Americans across the political spectrum) make a candidate unelectable in the general election? How would we even know? The economy is doing well now. What happens if we suffer another economic crisis (and yes, there are warning signs to be had)?

On immigration, are we to ignore the ethical and moral concerns for-profit imprisonment of asylum-seekers and immigrants presents, not to mention the real economic benefits these people bring to the table, because of moderate whites’ vague worries about a loss of “cultural identity?” On the Democrats trying to engage with Trump in a battle of “populist v. populist,” why not mention how Trump’s supposed “populism” is really just a concession to wealthy white males like himself?

Ultimately and in all, Brooks is critical of progressives who reject calls for civility and, in laying out their vision of the future, ensure the party can’t win next November. What good is “civility,” however, when today’s Republican Party is premised on bad-faith, deceptive arguments for holding up the status quo? And rather than appealing to a shrinking, elusive voting bloc, why not try to generate actual enthusiasm among those who haven’t voted or previously couldn’t vote? Why not try to win rather than playing not to lose? Have we learned nothing from 2016?

Evidently not. Instead, we get moderates who lauded Hillary Clinton and assured us voters would tire of Trump once again propping up an establishment candidate in Joe Biden because he supposedly “can stand up to” the orange-faced incumbent. Never mind Biden’s checkered past as a senator or that he seems to lack original policy ideas. Let the gaslighting continue and ignore the sound of progressives banging their heads against the wall.


I’ve highlighted Bret Stephens’s and David Brooks’s questionable outlooks on the 2020 presidential race, but this kind of analysis is by no means limited to conservatives. On the Democratic/liberal end of things, there are examples of punditry gone awry a-plenty.

Rebecca Traister, columnist at The Cut, an offshoot of New York magazine skewed toward women’s interests, describes this as the “Donny Deutsch problem in media.” As she explains, while the Democratic Party field is indicative of the country’s growing diversity—both ethnic and ideological—the face of today’s talking heads in political media hasn’t kept pace. Traister writes:

Where many Americans have seen the emergence of compelling and charismatic candidates who don’t look like those who’ve preceded them (but do look more like the country they want to lead), some prominent pundits seem to be looking at a field of people they simply can’t recognize as presidential. Where many hear Democratic politicians arguing vigorously on behalf of more justice and access to resources for people who have historically been kept at the margins of power, some prominent columnists are hearing a scary call to destabilization and chaos, imagining themselves on the outside of politics they’ve long assumed should be centered around them.

Altogether, what’s emerging is a view of a presidential commentariat that — in terms of both ideas and diversity — is embarrassingly outpaced by the candidates, many of whom appear smarter, more thoughtful, and to have a nimbler grasp of American history and structural inequities than the television journalists being paid to cover them.

Traister acknowledges Stephens amid the elaboration of her column, but adds some more names as examples of individuals who are supposed to be experts in their field but seem out of touch with what’s happening in the world more than anything.

Following the debates, Joe Scarborough railed against the Democrats’ stances in favor of undocumented immigrants being entitled to health care and that their crossing the border should be decriminalized. Chris Matthews, like Stephens, framed Kamala Harris’s taking of Joe Biden to task on the subject of busing during the debate as making white people feel as if they are “on trial” or that she is speaking out of some racially-based resentment. As for Mr. Deutsch, he panned Elizabeth Warren’s prospects in the general election next to Biden’s, touting his experience as an advertising and branding executive as an affirmation of the validity of his viewpoint. He, like Donald Trump, evidently gets people. Well, I’m sold, I don’t know about you.

As Traister finds and as others would agree, the “safe center” on which these men think the Democrats can rely may no longer be the source of salvation they or other mainstream liberals imagine it to be. This much becomes evident when looking at the substantial appeal of signature policy ideals such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and taxing the wealthy at a higher marginal rate. The contention of Deutsch et al. is that promoting these positions will hand Trump the election in 2020. Maybe it’s through embracing a bold vision of the future (a vision furthered by strong female candidates, no less) that the excitement needed to turn out the necessary voters to prevent his re-election will be achieved, though.

In fairness, Traister admits the likes of Stephens and Scarborough may be right, at least in the short term. Maybe the Democrats will win with Biden as their chosen candidate. Over the long term, however, the party strategy will almost certainly have to change in deference to a “different, faster, smarter, lefter turn toward the future.” To this end, the hegemonic hold white males have over political punditry will need to be addressed at some point too.

Unfortunately, this won’t be realized nearly fast enough, meaning newspaper subscribers and TV viewers will be forced to see the 2020 campaign through the prism of these privileged, moneyed men’s worldviews. Meaning we’re liable to get defenses of Biden and his condescending attitude toward people unlike him ad nauseum until the election or until his bid for the White House goes down in flames.

There’s a #MeToo dimension to this disproportionate representation as well. Matthews caught heat last year for an unearthed “hot mic” incident of sorts from 2016 where he jokingly asked where he put “that Bill Cosby pill” he brought with him in advance of an interview with Hillary Clinton. Deutsch, by his own admission, is a shameless flirt who has fantasized about women he was worked with and waxed poetic on Sarah Palin’s hotness when she first came to political prominence.

When Traister speaks to how problematic it is that potential voters and prospective candidates for public office are having their opinions shaped by these men, she has a firm grasp of what she’s talking about. Their professionalism (or lack thereof) is certainly not above reproach. Might we not submit the same of their political insights?

The male-dominated world of political media reacting with pearl-clutching bewilderment at up-and-comers in the Democratic Party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leading by example. Joe Biden’s place atop the polls despite his apparent unpreparedness in that first debate. These phenomena are related. These men are unused to a world in which their place atop the hierarchy is no longer guaranteed, where a twenty-something who previously worked as a bartender—gasp!—is beating them in the open exchange of ideas. As the very title of Rebecca Traister’s article asks, politics is changing; why aren’t the pundits who cover it?

Amen, sister.

Sarah Sanders, You Will Not Be Missed

Sarah Sanders demonstrably lied to the public. But sure, let’s have her run for governor of Arkansas and throw her a going-away party. (Photo Credit: Voice of America)

Bye, Felicia.

That is, to quote various Internet commentators—themselves quoting Ice Cube’s character in the seminal comedy Friday—upon hearing the news Sarah Sanders plans to leave the White House by the end of the month, ending her tenure as press secretary.

Of course, now begins the rampant speculation as to who will succeed Sanders in this role. A few people have wryly suggested conservative vloggers, social media personalities, political activists, and Fox Nation hosts Diamond and Silk are the new oddsmakers’ favorites to win the position. This is a joke—although given the disjointed and surreal way the Trump administration has operated heretofore, you can’t rule this possibility out either.

From a survival perspective in the tumult of the Trump White House, Sanders’s run is notable. Certainly, she has well eclipsed the likes of Anthony Scaramucci, whose short service in the capacity of White House Director of Communications is the minimum standard by which future Trump appointees might be judged. For that matter, she also has far surpassed her predecessor, Sean Spicer. If we’re giving Sanders credit—the conditions for which doing so are seemingly miniscule in the Trump era—there’s that, at least.

As Sanders’s watch comes to a close, though, and as per the wont of the American opinion journalism landscape, one is left to ponder what her legacy is alongside her contemporaries and others who have held her title in the past. Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent for CNN, puts it rather succinctly: “Sarah Sanders’ primary legacy as White House press secretary will be the death of the daily press briefing.”

On the infrequency of her appearances before the media, he’s not wrong. At this writing, Sanders’s last press briefing occurred on March 11, more than three months ago. In doing so, she broke her own previous records for the longest span without a briefing held in White House history. As an added bonus, and as Stelter notes, last month, reporters spied a coating of dust on her podium. Yeah, it’s that bad.

To be fair, many might not consider this a significant loss given Sanders’s propensity to stonewall White House reporters if not lie to them outright. From the details of the Mueller report, we know she admitted to fabricating tales of “countless” FBI agents thanking President Trump for firing James Comey as director on multiple occasions. She later characterized her description as a “slip of the tongue.”

But this was more than just misleading. This was a lie. When members of the journalism community found this much out, several called for her immediate ouster or resignation. Whatever credibility Sanders had maintained up to that point, she had destroyed it by acknowledging her prior comments were “not founded on anything.” Without the public’s trust, what good is having her on board?

Sanders’s wanton disregard for truth-telling, paired with the notion that her replacement probably won’t be much of an improvement—if at all—would therefore seem to render her departure inconsequential. As Stelter finds, meanwhile, her abdication of even the pretense of authenticity and transparency is a significant departure from past precedent. Both she and President Trump have contended that these press briefings aren’t essential when the president and other members of the administration are accessible in other ways. Namely Twitter.

And yet, 3 A.M. rants by the Commander-in-Chief aren’t the same as scheduled events marked by the ability of a free press to ask the White House direct questions. As Stelter puts it:

Press briefings matter for both symbolic and practical reasons. Symbolically, televised briefings show that the White House is open for business and willing to answer questions. And on a practical level, briefings are an efficient way for the administration to address numerous topics and engage with a wide variety of news outlets.

Accountability. Directness. Fairness. Visibility. These are hallmarks of good communication notably absent from the White House with Sanders as press secretary. Even within the confines of the Trump era, Sanders is not the only representative of the president to have a contentious and disingenuous relationship with the media; Kellyanne Conway’s thumbing her nose at the Hatch Act as well as the very existence of verifiable facts is an affront to everyone who listens to her speak. From an historical perspective, too, there are umpteen instance of presidents nakedly exhibiting antipathy toward the press. See also “Nixon, Richard.”

This merely provides context, though. It does not exculpate her as a member of an administration that has all but declared war on journalists. It doesn’t clear her of going after Jim Acosta’s press credentials if not his job citing blatantly edited footage, his alleged grandstanding aside. Or for tweeting about the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve her from her official government Twitter account. Or for accusing the media of spreading “fake news” about President Trump. Or for insisting he has never encouraged the use of violence against protestors.

Wait—there’s more. Or for misrepresenting legal situations involving the president or members of his administration such as Rob Porter. Or for citing the Bible and blaming Democrats for Trump’s family separation policy. Or for seriously overstating the numbers of individuals on the terror watch list getting apprehended at the Mexican border. Or for repeatedly failing to agree with the idea that the press “is not the enemy of the people.” Sanders may not be the only or worst example of bad behavior in the White House—we need look no further than the man setting the tone at the top for the ugliest conduct of all. But she’s an example of it nonetheless.

Indeed, as someone who once tweeted with relish about “Trump derangement syndrome,” a fictitious malady supposedly afflicting Democrats and other liberals, one has to assume Sanders, at least on some level, approves of Donald Trump and his agenda. That she’s jumping ship now like so many other officials have done under Trump’s watch shouldn’t make her look more palatable, nor should she get a round of applause given the difficulty of her placement. She agreed to this arrangement. Like the rest of her fallen comrades, she had to have some idea of what she was getting herself into.


What is perhaps most befuddling about the news of Sarah Sanders’s imminent departure is that it comes attached with multiple reports of her political aspirations, specifically “seriously considering” running for governor of Arkansas, a post once held by her father, former-presidential-candidate-turned-online-conservative-troll Mike Huckabee. Sanders has already established that she’s a professional liar, which some might concede makes her better qualified to be a politician. Our cynicism aside, is this the kind of person Arkansans want to represent them? Because her dad used to be governor, does she therefore make more sense than other candidates? Or is it that she carried water for President “Make America Great Again?” She didn’t even finish a full term as press secretary. What makes voters think she’ll be willing to work with them over the long haul?

Even yet more quizzical is the news that members of the media are evidently planning a going-away party for Sanders involving “farewell drinks” at an upscale D.C. bar. A going-away party? For the woman who refused to say that the press is not the enemy of the American people and who has let her podium literally collect dust? It’s preposterous and yet totally believable coming from a group that sought to console Sanders after her roasting at the hands of Michelle Wolf at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wolf did her job. Sanders has flouted her responsibility. The only “going-away party” I would want to see or attend if I were a White House reporter is one saying “good riddance” to someone who didn’t have my back after my colleagues came to her defense for being the lying mouthpiece of a would-be despot.

Again, Sarah Sanders may not be the worst the Trump administration has to offer and her yet-unnamed successor stands to be a downgrade. That’s not saying much for her as a person, however. As far as I am concerned, and as I know other conscientious objectors to the Trump presidency feel, Sarah Sanders, you will not be missed. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: Where the Rules May or May Not Apply

YouTube hasn’t removed Steven Crowder’s content despite his repeated violations of its terms of service prohibiting abusive behavior and hate speech. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a recent piece for The Intercept, Sam Biddle outlines how Project Veritas, a conservative group known for using deception and subterfuge in its attempts to expose the alleged misdeeds of leftists and left-leaning outlets like The Washington Post, has openly violated Facebook’s guidelines about the use of fake profiles in the service of “coordinated authentic behavior.”

The article, which includes deposition from members of the group admitting to how manufactured Facebook profiles factor into their work as well as context about the group’s backing, has this to say about Facebook’s oversight of the content it hosts alongside the company’s stated goal of stemming disinformation and propaganda:

The real issue is uneven, arbitrary enforcement of “the rules.” Max Read, writing in New York magazine on another social network’s enforcement blunders, argued that “the problem for YouTube is that for rules to be taken seriously by the people they govern, they need to be applied consistently and clearly.” YouTube is about as terrible at this exercise as Facebook is, and there’s a good chance that if Facebook treated malicious right-wing American exploitation of its network the same way it treats malicious foreign exploitation of its network, it would probably botch the whole thing and end up burning people who actually do use phony Facebook profiles for work toward the public good.

That a company like Facebook is even in a position to create “rules” like the coordinated inauthentic behavior policy that apply to a large chunk of the Earth’s population is itself a serious problem, one made considerably worse by completely erratic enforcement. It’s bad enough having a couple guys in California take up the banner of defending “Democracy” around the world through the exclusive control of one of the most powerful information organs in human history; if nothing else, we should hope their decisions are predictable and consistent.

While Biddle acknowledges that Facebook would probably screw up its attempts to officiate its policies against domestic political manipulation anyway, that it gives the practice a half-hearted, inconsistent effort doesn’t make matters better.

As the allusion to YouTube in Biddle’s closing additionally suggests, this phenomenon of tech giants being inadequate gatekeepers of authentic information free from hate speech is a pattern of frustrating behavior for observers across the political spectrum. Recently, YouTube caught a lot of heat from the journalist community when Carlos Maza, producer, writer, and host of the “Strikethrough” video series at Vox, made a public plea to the video-sharing website in a series of tweets pointing to homophobic and racist abuse by Steven Crowder, a conservative talk show host and self-professed comedian who has near four million subscribers to his name.

Crowder’s hollow defense against Maza’s compilation of all the times he referred to him as a “queer,” a “Mexican,” or demeaned his “lispy” delivery while caricaturing gay men has been that his is a comedy show and that his comments amount to nothing more than “playful ribbing.” This, however, to most objective observers, is unmitigated bullshit. Crowder’s repeated jabs at Maza for his criticisms of right-wing talking heads like Tucker Carlson are much stronger than the barbs you’d reserve for one of your friends—and even then they’re probably not all that appropriate and definitely not funny.

Crowder’s protestations of YouTube’s responses during this whole affair also miss the mark. Predictably, YouTube first addressed Maza’s plight by doing, well, nothing, claiming Crowder hadn’t violated its terms of service. This, like Crowder’s claims of innocence, is bogus. YouTube’s rules explicitly outlaw “content or behavior intended to maliciously harass, threaten, or bully others” and furthermore view hate speech as a violation. Representatives from the company explained that it opted not to take action against Crowder because he didn’t direct his viewers to harass Maza, which is immaterial to the above concerns and, at any rate, irrelevant in consideration of the notion he himself (Crowder) was the one doing the bullying.

Eventually, however, enough people raised objections whereby YouTube moved to demonetize Crowder, itself a token gesture given the conservative provocateur gets the bulk of his revenue from merchandise sales (including his ever-tasteful “Socialism Is for Fags” T-shirt depicting Che Guevara). Crowder’s reaction? This was YouTube caving to the demands of a corporation throwing its weight around to “censor” a conservative voice in accordance with the demands of a leftist who had targeted him, one of the “little guys,” because he didn’t like his viewpoints. Never mind that Maza is a gay Latino who regular receives abuse on both Crowder’s channel and Vox each time he makes a post. Right, Mr. Crowder, you’re the marginalized one here.

This isn’t censorship, though. This is a private company enforcing its rules by which Crowder did not abide. What’s more, it’s not even doing that right. For violations of its terms, YouTube should be removing this content, not simply demonetizing it. Instead, the offending remarks remain and Crowder gets to use this episode to rally his troops and paint Maza as the aggressor. Show your outrage by signing up for the Mug Club! What better way than to proudly exhibit your freedom!

At a minimum, this is an episode that makes YouTube look very bad. That its decision-making appears so wishy-washy lends credence to the criticism that the company is trying merely to avoid accusations of bias rather than doing the right thing. It doesn’t help either that these events are unfolding during Pride Month, an occasion for which YouTube has touted its commitment to the LGBTQ community. If it were really interested in upholding the civil rights of a vulnerable subset of the population beyond mere window-dressing, maybe YouTube would actually stand in solidarity with its LGBTQ creators rather than banning them too in the interest of purported “fairness.”


I mentioned Twitter in the headline for this article. Emil Protalinski, news editor for VentureBeat, while trashing YouTube for, alongside perpetuating the Maza-Crowder fiasco, allowing its automated recommendation system to show random people’s videos to pedophiles and providing platforms for content creators to capitalize on the anger of impressionable young male viewers, likewise takes Facebook and Twitter to task for their uneven commitment to rules they aver are clearly posted and stated.

In both cases, Protalinski views failure to consistently uphold a set of guidelines as occurring so often that there are simply “too many examples to list.” The instances he does highlight, meanwhile, are salient and illustrative. Re Facebook, its refusal to remove a video headily edited to make Nancy Pelosi look drunk, senile, or some combination thereof was highly criticized at the time for irresponsibility in allowing false/misleading content to exist contrary to the company’s stated goals.

As for Twitter, Protalinski cites the social media behemoth’s dilatory response to other apps and sites banning conspiracy theory promulgator Alex Jones from its service. If nothing else, Twitter is woefully behind the curve when it comes to properly marshaling the content it hosts. And, not for nothing, but why are there so many Nazis hanging around? Like, why is banning them evidently so controversial?

Lather, rinse, repeat. We’ve sadly seen this before and we’ll see it again. Protalinski writes:

There are two whack-a-mole cycles happening on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. First, these companies fail to write clear rules. Disgusting content on their platform is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies point to their rules. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

The second cycle is happening at the same time. A given rule is already clear and specific. Disgusting content is brought to light. It isn’t removed. Users protest. The companies fail to explain why it wasn’t removed immediately or make up excuses. More outrage follows. Finally, if there is enough of a blowback, apologies are issued, the rules are “clarified,” and the example content is taken down.

In these cycles, only blatant and high-profile cases are removed. And that process can take anywhere from weeks to months from when the original content was published. By then it has done the damage and generated the revenue.

In either scenario, the sticking point is not necessarily the specificity of rules (although lacking clear standards of conduct is in it of itself a problem), but rather the inability or unwillingness to consistently enforce them independent of political affiliation or other identifying characteristic. Without the requisite amount of outrage or clout of the individuals expressing that outrage, nothing moves forward. Even then, actions taken are liable to be too little, too late, and backed by an inauthentic, insufficient rationale. In other words, and to echo Protalinski, the damage is done.

To be fair, this business of moderating the wealth of content that appears on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is no easy task given its sheer volume and the rapidity with which it is created. At the same time, this is the responsibility these companies bear as providers. If your priorities involve retaining your share of the content creation/streaming market and growing your business, you’re going to have invest in a modicum of safeguards to ensure that users and creators alike feel comfortable using your platform.

So spare us the half-assed excuses and non-apology apologies. If people like Steven Crowder don’t want to play by the rules, invite them to abide by your code of conduct or find somewhere else to peddle their hate and disinformation. I, for one, could do without the moral quandary I face by using your services—and I know I’m not alone.

There Sure Are a Lot of “Lone” Wolves Out There

Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a Charleston, SC church in 2015, though considered a “lone wolf” attacker, is one of a growing number of people dining on hateful beliefs promulgated in online circles. (Photo Credit: Charleston County Sheriff’s Office)

A bar or nightclub. An office building. A place of worship. A school. Seemingly weekly, news of horrific acts of violence by a “lone wolf” attacker reaches our consciousness. Just recently, a shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in southern California, which left one person dead and three injured, made headlines.

The profile is all too familiar: a sole gunman entered and opened fire with an assault weapon. That the shooting occurred on Passover also suggests this was more than a coincidence; multiple officials, including President Donald Trump, referred to it as a “hate crime.” According to San Diego County sheriff William Gore and as first reported in USA TODAY on April 27, though law enforcement officials were still verifying its authenticity, a “manifesto” of sorts posted online around the time of the attack hinted at the shooter’s possible motivations/reasons for targeting Jews.

In terms of our experience and our feelings about these attacks, it’s difficult to know to what degree we should feel encouraged or dismayed. Concerning the Poway synagogue shooting in particular, that only one person died certainly is worth celebrating. Viewing these matters more globally, however, the verdict is less clear, and with each attack, our ability to process it all is tested.

Undoubtedly, for the communities directly impacted by this sort of violence, the brutality and sense of loss felt is profound. Recent suicides by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL and by the father of one of the children lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary attack speak to the devastating long-term emotional toll gun violence can effect. To say the suffering is a shared one appears wholly accurate.

Even for those of us who haven’t felt the brunt of the carnage wrought by lone wolf attackers and other perpetrators of mass violence, the repetition of the same story may be affecting in its own way. Each tragedy can feel like a punch to the gut, or worse, we may become numb to these events as a function of their apparent frequency. As is often talked about in media circles, we then run the risk of allowing these acts of terrorism to become the “new normal.”

A survivor of a 2018 school shooting in Santa Fe, when asked whether she were surprised about what transpired, replied that she felt “eventually [a shooting] was going to happen” at her school. Her resignation to this idea as a young child, sounding more defeated than optimistic, was perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this affair. I can only imagine how parents of young children must feel today, sending their children off to school in clear or bulletproof backpacks to participate in active shooter drills. It’s not a set of circumstances I envy.

Witnessing news reports on incidences of hate-fueled violence, as with other crimes, can make them seem more common than they actually are. We respond to the gravity of these situations and not necessarily to the statistical likelihood we will face our own personal encounters with this type of thing. Still, trends in observed data surrounding mass shootings and mass murderers are enough to cause alarm, even though the odds of an attack in our neighborhood may be comparatively slim.

Though published back in 2016, a Frontline PBS report by Katie Worth on the increasing incidence and lethality of lone wolf attacks still carries weight. Citing available research from multiple sources on the subject, Worth explains how five core findings have emerged relating to trends in this kind of violence in the United States. The findings, as she spells them out:

1. Lone wolf attacks are becoming more common. While noting these attacks are still rare and though they are nothing new, Worth details how both the number of attacks and the number of fatalities from these events have gone up in the past decade. In fact, by the date of the Frontline report, the 2010s had already surpassed all other decades in these regards, so one can only imagine where we’re at now.

2. White supremacist ideologies remain the top source of inspiration for lone wolves, though jihadism is also a significant influence. Though the left is not immune to instances of lone wolf attacks, predominantly, it is right-wing extremism which motivates these terrorists. And whether they are white supremacists or jihadis, they are terrorists. Though their exact motivations may be different (the appeal of al-Qaeda and ISIS for some young Westerners is particularly disturbing to national security experts), don’t let the absence of their condemnation and the disproportionate anti-Muslim rhetoric of conservative circles convince you there is some gargantuan divide between them.

3. Lone wolves are different than conventional terrorists. Though terrorists they may be, there are distinctions to be had. Lone wolves are mostly single white males with a criminal record, diverging from those who commit violence as part of a political organization in that they tend to be older, less educated, and significantly more prone to mental illness. Perhaps most surprisingly, lone wolf attackers motivated in part by politics tend to resemble if they aren’t patently indistinguishable from apolitical mass murderers who harbor some personal grievance. The only major difference herein is that mass murderers are more likely to perpetrate violence in a place with which they are familiar, whereas lone wolves are more likely to go somewhere previously unknown.

4. Guns are lone wolves’ weapon of choice. Though once upon a time, lone wolf attacks in America more frequently featured the use of explosives, controls on the purchase of bomb-making materials following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings are believed to be a key factor in reducing the incidence of attacks involving explosive devices. The bad news is that the permissiveness of U.S. gun laws has afforded would-be lone wolves with a staggering array of high-velocity firearms capable of hurting or killing many people in a short span. Say what you want about the Second Amendment, but the statistics are pretty clear on this front.

5. Lone wolves usually tell others about their plans. Whether it’s a cryptic post on social media, a manifesto mailed to media outlets, or some other sign of intent, lone wolves frequently telegraph their acts of violence. Of course, prevention is no easy task and finding useful intelligence to this effect raises concerns about surveillance and possible infringement of people’s civil liberties. As the report also indicates, lone wolf attacks tend to be less effective and deadly than coordinated attacks involving multiple actors. These notions aside, with this type of threat on the rise, there is some comfort in knowing investigators have hope for stopping the next tragedy in that these threats don’t usually arise in complete isolation.


It bears underscoring that not everyone who holds extremist beliefs goes on to shoot up a church or school or what-have-you. As alluded to earlier, lone wolf attacks, though on the rise, are still fairly uncommon. It should also be noted that not everyone professing fealty to an extremist cause necessarily believes in all its tenets. As experts on the subject will aver, what complicates our understanding of lone wolf attacks is that some individuals get involved with extremist movements simply as a means of inciting violence. The backdrop of hate serves as a backdoor to inflicting pain and suffering.

From a law enforcement/criminal justice standpoint, this may facilitate their prosecution. Whatever the reasons for committing these crimes, they are highly visible. In our ever-present search for meaning, however, the obscurity of a perpetrator’s motive can lead to frustration or downright despair. How do we overcome something when its very form is elusive? To say this isn’t easy seems like the understatement of understatements. In addition, our comprehension of these matters is hindered by a lack of available information on the subject, aided (and abetted) by a shift at the federal level away from viewing all forms of domestic terrorism as such. Under President Trump, counterterrorism efforts have focused almost exclusively on Islamic terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has eliminated distinctions between different types of domestic terrorism, conflating white supremacist violence with that of so-called “black identity extremists” in its new category of “racially-motivated violent extremism,” confusing the frequency of cases between the two. This is no accident, a move with political designs written all over them, a concession to Trump’s base and to the changing face of the Republican Party. The president’s supporters by and large do not want to contemplate the rise of white supremacist violence here and abroad. Trump and his administration are only too happy to acquiesce.

This intentional minimization of the threat posed by white supremacists in the U.S. is understandably not lost on the rest of us, especially not members of the opposition party. Earlier this month, a handful of Democratic senators including presidential hopefuls Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris signed and sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr (yes, that AG Barr) and FBI director Christopher Wray admonishing the Department of Justice and the Bureau for failing to adequately acknowledge and address the growing danger posed by white supremacist terrorism.

The senators also charged the DOJ and FBI with taking concrete steps to address this issue, outlining resources to be used in their efforts, and to explain why its classification system for domestic terrorism changed in the first place. Decry this as an “attack” on Trump designed to garner political capital if you will, but these concerns are undoubtedly shared by these legislators’ constituents and scores of other Americans like you and me. Even political opportunists get it right at least occasionally.

Irrespective of examples of mass shootings and other violence, the exigency of curbing white supremacist influence around the world demands action. Since Trump’s inauguration, outward shows of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice have become more mainstream. On one hand, that these dark attitudes and behaviors are becoming more visible means we are better able to combat them with love, understanding, and if necessary, peaceful resistance. On the other hand, to the extent this sense of empowerment would allow those possessing extremist beliefs to expand their reach, such transparency is recognizably problematic.

Seattle-based investigative journalist David Neiwert, in a recent opinion piece, writes about how hate groups are recruiting young people into a “toxic” belief system at an alarming rate. Addressing the increasing frequency of lone wolf attacks like the Chabad of Poway shooting, Neiwert underscores how many of these perpetrators of violence feel they are doing something heroic, fed by conspiracy theories and convinced they have taken the “red pill” and see what is real. Often, social media and other online or phone-accessible forums are the breeding ground for this hate. What’s more, we as a society need to acknowledge the proliferation of dangerous extremism for what it is. From the article:

It’s time for us to stop looking away and start paying attention. We need to acknowledge that our own children are being radicalized online, and that a social media ecosystem predicated on a toxic libertarianism that allows hateful speech to run rampant has been the main platform enabling this phenomenon. Before the arrival of the alt-right, white nationalism was on its elderly deathbed. Now the numbers are unquestionably surging with youthful converts. Judging from pure internet, social media and gaming-hub traffic, we’re talking in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of new young white nationalists being born online right now. We need to recognize that there are policies that are fueling it, as well as irresponsible media entities doing the same — and that these things must cease.

What also must be stressed is that, while we employ the term “lone wolves” to apply to the individuals who carry out these heinous attacks, as Katie Worth’s Frontline PBS report underscores, usually someone is made aware of their intentions. To this point, Amy Spitalnick, executive director of the nonprofit Integrity First for America, writes in her own essay how anti-Semitic lone wolves aren’t really “lone” wolves at all, but rather a group hiding in plain sight.

As Spitalnick tells it, these attackers are “part of an online cabal that perpetuates this violent hate.” Whether it’s through messaging apps, 8chan, the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, or some other forum, lone wolves are often making their intentions to do harm known to others, with their postings reading like a “virtual road map” after the fact. These premeditations are not met with condemnation and revulsion, but acceptance, fame, and idol worship.

Along these lines, Spitalnick shares Neiwert’s sense of urgency about how to combat this disturbing phenomenon. At a minimum, she advocates for recognition of the surge in white supremacist terrorism as a national emergency, as well as investment by the federal government in programs designed to address this crisis rather than cuts and amorphous distinctions between white supremacists and “black identity extremists” which misrepresent and obscure. To boot, platforms like Twitter need to get serious about curbing abuse, harassment, hate, and threats of violence. Looking at you, @jack.

Having Donald Trump promote white nationalist views from his bully pulpit in the White House is bad in it of itself. Even if we remove him from office through electoral or other means, though, the problem won’t be solved. He is not the Night King whose defeat will suddenly mean the destruction of all other bigots around him. Trump’s rise is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and with all these “lone” wolves committing wanton acts of violence, the time for a unified front working to stem the spread of chilling right-wing extremism is now. To borrow another Game of Thrones reference, winter isn’t coming. It’s already here.