Why aren't we paying attention to the blatant blackmail?
I heard you on Recode last night and realized that most people have become familiar with you because of the pandemic - I've been following your work in digital sociology, on AI and social media, for years and am delighted that even more people are finding your work. I didn't hesitate for a second to sign up for a paid subscription to Insight - while I appreciate that you can write long form for The Atlantic (and I'm a paid subscriber there too) I also believe we must stop seeking 'free' content, considering what free has cost us. We need to pay for rigorous work to the extent we're able. Anyway, I also wanted to mention that one underreported issue on the political landscape is the potential that Republican members of Congress and others in leadership positions - and I am in no way excusing their amoral, craven behavior - may also be on the receiving end of compromat, as the GRU hacked not just the DNC but also the RNC in 2016. I have wondered about this - and the absence of reporting on it - as journalists and pundits continue to be astounded by Republicans' unwillingness to turn away from Trump, even when it doesn't appear to be in their best interest to stick with him. This is only a question on my part, not an assertion - that compromat may be a factor - but I wish we had more deeply reported and thoughtful journalism available to us. I know you don't consider yourself a journalist, but your writing is much more what we need that what most full time journalists have been reduced to within the context of the business model and the erosion of their profession.
Professor Tufekci, amid the modern news media cacophony, you soar above the din to consistently provide razor-sharp insight into how we are being manipulated and how to fight back. You are a treasure.
A friend who works in film sent me a tripod shot last night of him hiking a mountain in the dark with a headlamp on. When his head and body were still, you could make out the details of rocks and plants, even see color. When he was physically moving both, it was chaotic. Then the sun came up and he got some gorgeous shots. I've been leaning into Parable of the Cave a lot recently. Thinking about reality, where we allocate our attention and how that shapes our understanding of it. What do we need to understand so that we don't trip on the next step, and what do we need to understand so that we don't get lost? There are mechanics to any observation where some are more well practiced than others: the ability to focus at different depths (iris), the ability to focus on different parts of our field of view (eye), the ability to pan and tilt (head), and the ability to move around (body). For current editors, it feels like they're pointing our attention so that we don't trip and are neglecting the direction we're stumbling in.
I feel pretty dizzy and most folks I chat with do too. I like the name whistle-drowning a lot. Giving names to patterns emerging in the dark to help focus is a good next step. But then how conscious are editors of the pattern (I think more now), and how quickly will the general public learn to recognize it (eh)? How much practice have various individuals had at evaluating credibility, scale, scope, and importance given our relatively new technologies of sharing observations? For big stories like threatening to jail opponents and spreading conspiracies that lead in a bad direction, how do you convince everyone to stop moving for a minute and focus on that before taking another step given the larger danger it represents?
Another great post, rereading your book and getting more out of it this time. It's really helped me make sense of the last few years and at least feel like I'm moving in something closer to the right direction.
There’s a job going as Chair of the BBC - I wish you’d apply. We Brits could use someone with your smarts and integrity to help us navigate these waters.
Wow, excellent insights and writing as always. Attention vs speech, and blackmail (both direct and subtle) are critical thoughts here. I assume you have seen the WP article today on the on-line feedback loop with President Trump and his influencers and followers. Talk about generating a lot of attention in a short amount of time. Also today the NYT article on potential scenarios on Nov 4th and after - again, lots of attention. I almost wish Twitter, Facebook, etc would voluntarily shut down on Nov 3rd and Nov 4th. Thanks again for your work!
If we’re going to get meta about this (and I agree we should), why do all the articles that claim no taint on Joe Biden repeat the text message from Bobulinski about “10% held by H for the big guy?”. That doesn’t read like an exoneration, no matter what the lede says.
To me, it reads like journalists who, as Greenwald claims, badly want Joe Biden to win, are covering their asses. This is where your “don’t give in to blackmail” argument blurs into avoiding proper, if uncomfortable, reporting. Nobody seems to be claiming that Bobulinski coordinated his going on the record with Giuliani, so even if he’s a “useful idiot”, his claims and documentation are not blackmail, they’re corroboration of *parts* of the hack and leak. And I think mainstream journalists know this, but bury the story within an article pronouncing that Biden is clean.
Hi Zeynep, thanks for creating this platform. I am really hoping that it is possible to move away from the binaries of social media and get a space for more nuance.
On the Hunter episode you have a nice take and I largely agree with you, except that I am not clear who determines the level of attention an issue should receive in the media. However, I would like to raise a slightly different issue that I see in this Greenwald-Hunter episode. This episode demonstrates to me a continuum of anti-Trumpism that exists today. On the one extreme, there are liberals like Greenwald, who after Sanders lost out in the primaries, seem to think that there is no difference between Biden and Trump. The only evidence against this interpretation of Greenwald's view is his defence of Chomsky's endorsement of Biden, else most of his social media timeline gives an impression that he sees no discernible difference between a Biden administration and a second Trump term, at least on issues (e.g., what he would call American imperialism in foreign policy) that he cares about.
On the other extreme are the liberals that dismiss the Hunter episode as a Russian conspiracy. This group is highly protective of Joe Biden's candidacy because they fear that a second Trump term would lead to more irreversible damage on many policy dimensions, particularly climate change efforts. They fear that exposing Biden on the other policy areas, where they may have concerns and disagreements, could be exploited by the Trump campaign, potentially leading to the reelection of Trump. Somewhere in between these two extremes are a bunch of others that include what Greenwald would disparagingly call Bush necons, who are hoping to grab politically important positions in a Biden administration.
This raises an important question that many of us (certainly I do) grapple with. If you think you are someone committed to certain higher principles in democratic politics and when we have a choice between alternatives that are imperfect in their commitment to those principles, do you choose the "lesser evil," and in that process undermine your commitment to your principles? Or do you choose to be indifferent to the outcome between the alternatives and stick to the principles that you care about? I think Greenwald would like to believe that he is doing the latter but there are perhaps a bunch of liberals who choose the former. More generally, how could one think about this dilemma? Would look forward to your and others' views on this forum.
Sorry, but I can't imagine that blackmail or "deter[ring] people from entering into politics" are anywhere near the main reasons for the airing of dirty laundry that happened here or in the Podesta/Wikileaks case. My Occam's Razor would suggest, roughly in order of decreasing importance:
(1) raising the clickbait value by adding salacious material (it's not exactly a new idea for the NY Post that a naked picture is worth a thousand words);
(2) the character witness value of the material (it might not swing a typical progressive, but a lot of voters *will* view these things as reflecting negatively on both Hunter and Joe's characters);
(3) an unwillingness to sift chaff from the wheat in a large leak (not sure how much there was to separate here in the Biden story, but I'm definite that this was behind Wikileaks's "too much data" problem -- Assange was quite outspoken about it, and it hurt Wikileaks noticeably, as the mass of irrelevant information drowned out the juicy parts).
The chilling effects, to me, look like collateral damage willingly inflicted. If I wanted to scare newcomers out of politics, I'd make sure to attack some low-level staffers and pundits, not a former vice president and presidential candidate. I wouldn't try to come up with a ridiculous backstory for the leak; I'd make it look like it could happen to anyone, not just to a crackhead who would seriously forget his laptop in a repair shop. (Not that I believe that backstory for a moment -- but the very fact that it's being provided is reducing the scare potential of the story.) Nor would I leak weak-sauce kompromat on someone (Hunter) whose reputation is not exactly an asset to begin with. I can't imagine myself being scared out of politics by something like this; there are worse things happening all around the US. (I, for one, am much more worried by the infestation of politics with "lock her/him up" language over the last four years.)
Blackmail could indeed be a thing if the hackers haven't shot off their whole ammo but are holding back some stronger material they have found on the laptop. But for now, we don't have any tangible evidence of that; it's just a could-be theory. And again, if I wanted to blackmail Biden, I would do it with a lot less noise, and I would try to do it in a way that would *not* lower his electability.
What am I missing?
PS. For what it's worth, the authenticity of at least one of the emails has now been confirmed by Rob Graham, who is a serious security researcher and not known for picking sides in political conflicts. See https://twitter.com/riskybusiness/status/1322078166496673793 and his confirmation at https://twitter.com/ErrataRob/status/1322078561675730945 . This may have come out too late for this post, but just wanted it mentioned, as it means that the "refused to have the laptop examined" part is not central.
Thank you for your cogent comments and perspective.