Don’t make Zuck a censor

Facebook is taking flak for refusing to police the political ads it sells for truthfulness. That’s absurd. And how effective are those ads, anyway?

I’m no fan of the platform. It’s aesthetically unpleasing. More importantly, it has had a lot to do with the destruction of local newspapers. And I’m leery of what David Courtwright has called “limbic capitalism” that preys on our propensity to addiction. 

No question, Mark Zuckerberg is a limbic capitalist. He aims to hook us on our screens to that he can tap into our particulars like a cyber vampire and sell them to anyone who wants to manipulate us. Of course, we have only ourselves to blame for letting him get his teeth into our necks. Facebook is free for a reason, but also optional.

It is precisely because the Zuckerberg I’ve watched testifying before Congress looks to have undergone a lobotomy of the soul that I would not want to assign him, his creatures or algorithms the task of deciding between the acceptability or otherwise of political speech. 

Put it out there and let us be the judge. That’s what the Founders had in mind. They did not confine protection of speech to the true kind. This would a pretty monosyllabic republic had they done so.

Of course, the Founders never imagined politicians targeting lies with the accuracy made possible by Facebook. But when has matching sales pitch to audience not been an essential element of vote-getting. And it is not as though we can’t see what candidates are feeding their discrete audiences.

On Tuesday, for example, the Trump campaign, deluged its marks with invitations to take what it called “The Democrat Corruption Accountability Survey” featuring 10 questions along the lines of “Do you believe Joe Biden’s corruption in Ukraine should disqualify him from being president?” 

To share your answer with Trump you had also to share your postal code and email. That would presumably discourage those who saw the premise of the survey for what it was — a lie — from hitting submit. But it would also reap a harvest of usefully idiotic contacts for the campaign.

Another Facebook ad blitz the same day featured pictures of worried looking puppies and kittens. Thanks to Trump, their lives supposedly were about to improve. Caption: “Enough is enough. Cruelty to animals is now a federal crime thanks to President Trump! Add your name to show you stand with President Trump against abuse in the United States TODAY”.

Trump did sign a bipartisan animal cruelty bill last year but to call the notorious germophobe an an animal lover is a stretch, especially when Don Jr. is out potting rare Mongolian sheep for sport. But as long as it’s done transparently, I’ll defend Trump’s right to misrepresent himself on Facebook, if not with my life at least in my penultimate Business Day column..

Want to see who’s advertising how and what they’re spending? Visit the Facebook ads library and type in Trump or any other candidate’s name. It’s not the easiest dashboard to navigate but it does tell you in which states each iteration of an ad is being seen and how many eyeballs it has flashed past. 

What it does not do, presumably quite deliberately, is provide enough information to let you easily correlate ads with voting results. For that you would need a much more granular picture of the demographic target criteria selected for each ad.

Why would Facebook be coy with such data? Perhaps because it would reveal too much about whether Facebook ads are really the political game changer Zuckerberg adviser Andrew Bosworth boasted they were in a “leaked” December 30 memo to colleagues. It wasn’t Russia or Cambridge Analytica’s “garbage” that got Trump elected in 2016, he said. It was Facebook and “the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen.”

That’s an ad salesman speaking in a year when election spending will shatter records.

A lock on the House

Hillary Clinton could still lose to Donald Trump on November 8. It doesn’t look likely at this point, ongoing e-mail eruptions notwithstanding. A far safer bet is that the Republican party, however badly its presidential nominee crashes and burns, will retain control of the House of Representatives, making life exceedingly difficult for Clinton even if the Democrats retake the Senate.

Source: LETTER FROM WASHINGTON: Republicans deft at exploiting ticket to power | Columnists | BDlive

Trump’s Rhodes-Must-Fall Moment

In sneering at Khizr and Ghazala Khan, an immigrant Muslim couple whose son Humayun, a US Army captain, was killed protecting American comrades in Iraq, Donald Trump may finally have arrived at his Rhodes-must-fall moment.

Not Cecil but “Lonesome” Rhodes, the protagonist of Elia Kazan’s 1957 cautionary tale, “A Face in the Crowd”, a movie finding a whole new audience thanks to the Republican presidential nominee. Continue reading “Trump’s Rhodes-Must-Fall Moment”

Putin Phishing for Trump?

Someone tried to blow up the Democratic Party as it gathered in Philadelphia this week to unify around presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Prime suspect? Jacob Zuma’s best friend forever, Vladimir Putin. These are extraordinary times.

The device was an information bomb: 20 000 emails heisted from the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) servers between January 2015 and the end of May this year. CrowdStrike and other private cybersecurity experts have fingered the FSB, successor to the KGB, and the GRU, Moscow’s military intelligence directorate. US intelligence agencies are said to have “high confidence” the Russian government was involved.

Full article: LETTER FROM WASHINGTON: Was Democratic hack a Russian Trump card? | Columnists | BDlive

Dying with Mr Jimmy 

Traditionally, the acceptance speech of an American presidential nominee is followed by a cascade of balloons from the convention hall ceiling and snappy, upbeat music blasting from the speakers. For a long time the preferred tune was Happy Days Are Here Again.

The Donald Trump convention in Cleveland, Ohio, ended on a different note last week: Mick Jagger (without his permission) wailing: “You can’t always get what you want … but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need”.

It’s a macabre song, featuring a girl with blood-stained hands, a bleeding man in a glass, and someone called Mr Jimmy at a Chelsea drugstore looking “pretty ill” and muttering the word “dead”. Whoever picked the number — one of the Trump “children” perhaps — chose well.

Full article: NEWS ANALYSIS: Trump makes Clinton’s life easier by unifying Democrats | Americas | BDlive

Night of the Nut Job

Night one of the cartoonish Donald Trump convention in Cleveland, Ohio, was devoted to the proposition that under President Barack Obama America has become Gotham City and that the mayhem will only deepen if Hillary Clinton is elected in November.

Republican Batman-in-waiting Donald Trump made his first appearance — to introduce his wife Melania — as a silhouette on a dazzling white screen to the unauthorised strains of Queen’s “We are the Champions”.

It was as if the previous speaker, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, having warned that the upcoming election might be America’s last if Clinton won, had left the stage to flick on the Bat Signal.

Except that the shadow smacked less of the Caped Crusader than of the Penguin, the portly villain played by Danny De Vito in the second of the Michael Keaton Batman movies.

Full article: NEWS ANALYSIS: As the Joker once asked: enough madness? | Opinion & Analysis | BDlive

The great American demagogue filter

In 415 BCE, Alcibiades, a made-for-reality-TV Athenian with a lot of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson in him, revved up his countrymen (the women had no say) to add Sicily to their empire. There being no checks or balances to blunt the passions of the voting demos, off they sent thousands of their finest over the objections of Nicias, a seasoned general who knew better. Few came back. Athens was never great again.

The story, as narrated by the historian Thucydides, was seared into my memory at school, the same school attended by Britain’s lame duck prime minister, David Cameron, and his bloated nemesis, Johnson. Had Cameron learnt a little Greek, he might have been slower to submit a question of no less consequence to a similarly unfiltered national plebiscite.

What moved 52% of British voters to opt for Brexit would appear to be much the same disgruntlement that has led to Trump becoming the Republican party’s de facto presidential nominee.

Happily, America does not choose its CE by referendum.

Full article: LETTER FROM WASHINGTON: Electoral system makes it hard for Trump to win | Columnists | BDlive

A Useful Emetic?

Mankind, wrote Edward Gibbon, has a “propensity … to exalt the past and deprecate the present”. Donald Trump, the combed-over werewolf at Washington’s door, understands this. The reason he’s so worrisome is that for all too many voters, the past really was better.

In 1998, the median net worth of American families was $102,500. By 2013, measured in constant dollars, it was down 21% to $81,200, according to Federal Reserve (Fed) data crunched by personal finance columnist Liz Watson. Working-class families with incomes in the second-lowest quintile have been particularly hard-hit.

Their median net worth plunged 53% over the 15-year period, from $47,400 to $22,400. The top 10%, meanwhile, did nicely. Their median net worth surged 75%, to $1,130,700.

Which helps explain the distemper Trump is exploiting with his poisonous spew of other-bashing and protectionism. It also accounts for Bernie Sanders’s strong showing on the left. Assuming he does not win in November, Trump may end up doing his country and the world a favour, serving in all his vileness as a reform-inducing emetic.

Full article: LETTER FROM WASHINGTON: How shareholders trump staff in corporate capitalism | Columnists | BDlive

Dilbert’s Creator: Trump Wins

It is now entirely conceivable that Donald Trump will be America’s next president. He has locked up the Republican nomination. His defeated rivals are uniting around him, as is the party’s leadership in Congress.

He is neck-and-neck in national polls with the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. She may lose the June 7 California primary to the indefatigable Bernie Sanders, whose supporters, whatever happens, look unlikely to cede the field with grace. The Democrats could enter the general election in November more divided than the Republicans.

So it is time to start thinking the unthinkable. One observer who has been thinking it for longer than most is the creator of the hugely loved Dilbert comic strip. Scott Adams, whose latest book is entitled How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big, has an unusually smart feel for the zeitgeist.

He was one of the few who foresaw Trump winning the nomination when the race began. He is now predicting a landslide in November.

Full article: LETTER FROM WASHINGTON: Trump is the master of the dark arts of politics | Columnists | BDlive