Mis-readings

Trump campaign texts supporters to ask for money; reporter fired for "exploring what it means to do truthful journalism"; and more.


  • In the wake of President Trump’s ascendance, there’s a lot of hyperventilating prose about creeping “coups” pretending to be deep thinking floating around the web these days. For example, it’s pretty likely that someone has sent you this article, translated from the original German, that claims to show how Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm used by the Trump campaign, supposedly used psychometric profiling and micro-targeting to win the election. The piece, by Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, deploys many of the stylistic tics that make so many feature stories about tech innovations sizzle and pop. But the truth is a lot less convincing, as even the authors admit deep in their piece: “…to what extent did psychometric methods influence the outcome of the election? When asked, Cambridge Analytica was unwilling to provide any proof of the effectiveness of its campaign. And it is quite possible that the question is impossible to answer.”

  • In case you’ve lost your senses about that story, longtime Civicist contributing editor Dave Karpf, author of an excellent new book on Analytic Activism, explains in chapter and verse why Grassegger and Krogerus’ story falls apart, and why he calls Cambridge Analytica the “Theranos” of political consulting firms.

  • Another piece that’s floating around, and if my in-box is any guide is getting lots of sycophantic praise from tech savants who are political naifs, is this essay by Jordan Greenhall (CEO and co-founder of the “Neurohacker Collective”) called “Situational Assessment 2017: Trump Edition.” There’s a high quality of BS being deployed here, because many of Greenhall’s theories are loosely plausible and also essentially unprovable. The futurist racket has long known that if you make enough predictions about the future, a few will eventually turn out to be right. (His 2015 assessment is a grab-bag of bad guesses.) Plus he uses words like “memetic” and “OODA loop” a lot, and therefore his piece is getting a lot of clicks from otherwise smart people who haven’t paid much attention to politics and woke up the day after the election in deep shock. Folks, get a grip; if 100,000 votes had gone the other way, no one would take any of this seriously. The Trump-Bannon presidency is dangerous, but it’s not a “novel model of collective intelligence in general.”

  • Or maybe you’ve read Google privacy engineer Yonatan Zunger’s “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” If so, try this counter-post from Cornell professor Tom Pepinsky, who actually studies authoritarian politics for a living. He points out that every action Zunger interprets as a sign of strength can also be read as “evidence not of a deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian, but of the exact opposite: the weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist.”

  • One more: Jake Fuentes mansplains the people protesting Trump’s immigration ban for supposedly falling for a “head-fake”; our longtime friend Baratunde Thurston gently tells him to step back and listen.

  • This is sad. After raising $24 million practically overnight in support of its util-pronged court fight against Trump’s agenda, the ACLU is enrolling in Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s temple of start-up culture, Josh Constine reports for TechCrunch. Supposedly, the venerable group—which proved last weekend to be no slouch in digital organizing—”will learn how to turn the $24 million it raised over the weekend into growth and progress” from Y Combinator’s mentors. Maybe Peter Thiel will teach the group how to sue media companies out of business? Seriously, if the ACLU wants expert help in digital organizing and fundraising, there are plenty of people right here in NYC who would volunteer for the group in a heart-beat and don’t come with the baggage of normalizing Trumpism in the process.

  • Related: Constine just noticed that there might be some people building tech that can actually help change the world, and now he wants to write about their work for TechCrunch. One wonders how TechCrunch will be able to discern good civic tech from hype, after so many years of stories on that site about “disruptive” products that were going to “change everything” and in fact only made a handful of people really rich, while solving problems like “how to get a limo to your doorstep in minutes,” Here’s his well-intentioned call for story pitches.

  • Yes, and Y Combinator wants civic tech makers who are trying to improve democracy to apply.

  • Don’t forget: Peter Thiel once wrote that women getting the vote was bad for democracy.

  • Trump watch: Jerry Falwell Jr. is going to be heading Trump’s higher education task force, and to honor him, Kevin Roose of Fusion shares a photo of a page of a science textbook that was assigned at his school a decade ago.

  • A Detroit business owner, Mike Hager, was prevented from bringing his family from Iraq home with him last Friday, despite their holding green cards. His mother, who was ill and in need of treatment, died the next day, as Amy Lange reports for Fox 2 News Detroit. “They destroyed us. I went with my family, I came back by myself. They destroyed our family,” Hager said of the U.S. Customs authorities.

  • For the first time in his presidency, the Trump campaign has texted supporters to ask for money, Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti reports.

  • Opposition watch: Federal workers are quietly organizing to resist implementing Trump’s agenda, with some setting up social media accounts to anonymously leak word of changes that Trump appointees are trying to make, Juliet Eilperin, Lisa Rein and Marc Fisher report for The Washington Post. Two such accounts @altUSEPA and @ActualEPAFacts, have together attracted more than 500,000 followers.

  • CrowdJustice, a U.K. crowdfunding platform that raises money for legal fights, has launched here in the U.S. with an effort to help two Yemeni brothers caught in Trump’s immigration ban, as our Jessica McKenzie reports for Civicist. (h/t Sabrina Hersi Issa)

  • An anonymous group has posted what it says are the direct lines for various members of President Trump’s White House staff, though actually all they are is a list of extensions off the 202-456-XXXX number. “Open communication is the foundation of a good, functioning democracy,” a spokesperson for the group told Gothamist’s Rebecca Fishbein in a statement. “But it’s a two-way street. Right now there’s ‘information’ coming out of the White House to the people, but not much the other way around. They may have shut down the comment line, but we the people still have comments. In light of that, we wanted to create one way for the people to be heard.”

  • Aubrey Whelan and Maria Panaritis report for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the explosion of grass-roots participation flooding into Democratic party local forums taking place in the Philadelphia suburbs right now.

  • This is outrageous: After being asked by American Public Media’s Marketplace radio show to create a personal blog as part of building his “personal brand,” radio journalist Lewis Wallace was fired for a personal post “exploring what it means to do truthful journalism with a moral compass in this very complex time.”

  • Clio Chang of The New Republic keeps an eye on how the tech industry is responding to Trump’s immigration order, noticing that while most of Silicon Valley’s leadership has come out against it, notable Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Google’s Larry Page have remained silent.

  • After WikiLeaks tweets that the AP and the New York Times have adopted “WikiLeaks technology,” security engineer Micah Lee of the The Intercept responds, “SecureDrop isn’t ‘WikiLeaks technology”. This is a lie. Built by Aaron Swartz, now thriving FLOSS project. Wikileaks has never contributed.”

  • Peter Borenstein

    I was surprised to see the bit about the ACLU joining Y Combinator. Is it sad only because of the Peter Thiel connection? I think that venerable agencies like the ACLU need a lot of help planning for the future where our personal and professional lives are increasingly hung up on tech. I’m a lawyer and there are signs everywhere about how our lagging legal system (and legal services sector) is really being hurt because of a lack of understanding about tech. So I think it’s kind of a smart move, although after the millions they raised last week, I’m not sure if they need Y Combinator money…