October 29, 2017: Trump Cleared | Flake Off | Bots of the Right
Good Thursday. For all their complaints about the bias of the Mainstream Media, we couldn’t help but notice that for most of October the conservative press has been dining out on the hard-earned reporting of their so-called “fake news” cousins. The three stories that have dominated their pages all broke in traditional newspapers. The New York Times, of course, unearthed charges of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior. The Washington Postthis week connected the Clinton campaign to the Trump dossier, research collected on candidate Trump by a former British agent that is said to include salacious offenses that would make Trump vulnerable to blackmail. (The existence of the dossier was made public by BuzzFeed in January but its origins have been murky since.). And reporting by The Hill gave new life to old allegations about a link between the Clintons and an unsavory sale of a uranium company to a Russian state-owned agency. (This story, by the way, was originally broken by The Times in 2015 -- in cooperation with a former fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution, Peter Schweizer.) It doesn’t get any more mainstream than that. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Russia Collusion: “Toxic B.S.”
There were two big developments pertaining to Russia this week and in the mind (and pages) of the conservative media they were huge. They were seen essentially as a one- two punch clearing Donald Trump of colluding with the Russians during the 2016 election and placing the onus for likely corruption back on some hated old enemies, namely Hillary Clinton and the F.B.I..
So let’s start with The Washington Post revelation that the Clinton campaign had paid for the Trump dossier. The alt-Right saw this as proof that the entirety of the collusion allegations against Trump were fabricated. Breitbart and Drudge both led with links to what they described as a “bombshell scoop.” But no one was more hepped upabout the links to the Clinton campaign and how it amounted to exoneration for Trump than Rush Limbaugh.:
The bottom line here is that this dossier — which was presented to the American people; which was presented to President Trump as intelligence, as reliable intelligence — was nothing more than opposition research bought and paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democrat National Committee.
They paid a guy to make this stuff up. It is not intelligence. There’s not a shred of it that’s true. It never has been true. But look at how it was used. Look at everybody who went along with this. The CIA director, John Brennan, informed the world that this dossier formed the basis of his investigation into whether or not Trump had colluded with the Russians to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. The CIA director said that it formed the basis of his investigation. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, working for Obama, ditto, same thing………...
He added later…
But, my friends, all of this is BS. It is literally toxic BS. John Brennan, the director of the CIA, said it was the basis of the CIA’s investigation into whether Trump colluded with Russia, for which there still is no evidence, for which there will not be any evidence because of: It didn’t happen!
But the clearing, in their minds, of Trump from Russian collusion allegations was only step one. During the campaign, Trump had made two largely unsubstantiated claims to his base about Hillary Clinton’s criminality. One involved the misuse of her personal email server and the other the approval of the sale of an interest in a Canadian uranium mining company with stakes in America to the Russian state agency, Rosatom, earlier in this decade. That sale was approved by the State Department, among other agencies, soon after Bill Clinton received a $500,000 check for speaking in Russia.
Although both charges gained a hold among many GOP base voters who want Clinton prosecuted, little has been done to follow up on them until now.
On Sunday, The Hill reported that the F.B.I. had been in the middle of a racketeering/influence peddling investigation into Rosatom when the sale went through, which raises lots of interesting questions about it did not act to end the sale. At the time, the F.B.I. was headed by none other than Robert Mueller, now the special counsel conducting the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It was enough for the House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes to open up his own probe into the sale.
Fox News, which like much of the conservative press, has been pushing Congress to investigate the origins of the Trump dossier for months, couldn’t help but crow about the “tables being turned” on Democrats.:
After months of batting back accusations of collusion with Moscow in last year’s presidential campaign, Republicans say Democrats are the ones who now have “some explaining to do” as fresh developments raise questions about their own Russia connections.
On air, a Fox & Friends favorite, Newt Gingrich, hammered home the point on the show, calling Russian influence peddling around Hillary “stunning.”
To Holman W. Jenkins Jr., a Wall Street Journal opinion columnist, The Hill story was proof enough that Mueller must recuse himself.:
Mr. Mueller has the means, motive and opportunity to obfuscate and distract from matters embarrassing to the FBI, while pleasing a large part of the political spectrum. He need only confine his focus to the flimsy, disingenuous but popular (with the media) accusation that the shambolic Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin. ...
By any normal evidentiary, probative or journalistic measure, the big story here is the FBI—its politicized handling of Russian matters, and not competently so.
To put it bluntly, whatever its hip-pocket rationales along the way, the FBI would not have so much to cover up now if it had not helped give us Mrs. Clinton as Democratic nominee and then, in all likelihood, inadvertently helped Mr. Trump to the presidency.
What We’re Watching:
Whether it be the Clinton emails or a botched military raid in Libya, the conservative press is good at not letting go of an issue it believes has a political payoff. We expect Democratic connections to Russia to be with us for a long time in new and varied forms. On Monday, for example, NBC reported that Tony Podesta, a brother of the Clinton advisor John, was being investigated by Mueller. By Tuesday, Fox News Insider reported that the Fox anchor Tucker Carlson had sources saying the Podesta brothers, not Trump, were at the center of the Mueller investigation.:
A thus-far-reliable source who used to be involved with Clinton allies John and Tony Podesta told Tucker Carlson that press reports appearing to implicate President Trump in Russian collusion are exaggerated.
The source, who Carlson said he would not yet name, said he worked for the brothers' Podesta Group and was privy to some information from Robert Mueller's special investigation.
While media reports describe former "Black, Manafort & Stone" principal Paul Manafort as Trump's main tie to the investigation, the source said it is Manafort's role as a liaison between Russia and the Podesta Group that is drawing the scrutiny.
The "vehicle" Manafort worked for was what Carlson called a "sham" company with a headquarters listed in Belgium but whose contact information was linked to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Manafort was, at the time, representing Russian business and political interests during the Obama era.
2. Flake Off
This was one of those weeks when the Mainstream Media and the conservative media seemed to be covering two different Washingtons. While the conservative media saw a pivot point on Russia, the Mainstream Media seemed focused on the dissension with the Republican party. In particular, the rebellion of three Senators no longer or not currently running for re-election who have lately been pummeling the president -- John McCain, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker.
But to the Red Media the attacks largely seemed like the whining of losers. While The Washington Post editorial page praised Flake’s “stirring” call to action, Ben Shapiro writing in The Daily Wire would have none of it. He argued that Flake had shot himself in the foot long before the duel with Trump or before Bannon declared war on GOP senators who didn’t support the Trump agenda. Anyone claiming otherwise was full of it.:
Flake’s retirement has allowed three groups of people to run with a pre-crafted narrative: the narrative of a Trump takeover of the Republican Party, and the forced exile of all dissidents at the hands of the Trumpian conquerors. Group #1: the Trumpian wing of the party, led by Breitbart, claiming credit for ousting Flake for his supposed heresies against Trump. Group #2: the media, eager to play up conflict within the party and castigate all Republicans as Trump sycophants and the future of the party as a nationalist populist demagogue-driven disaster. Group #3: Flake and his supporters, who wish to recast their unpopularity as a result of high-minded principle rather than bad politicking.
Here is the reality: Jeff Flake was one of the most unpopular senators in the country nearly from the point of his election in 2012. In April 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece titled, “How Jeff Flake Became the Most Unpopular Senator in America.” At that point, Trump wasn’t a gleam in Steve Bannon’s eye, and Bannon wasn’t a gleam in the media’s eye.
Meanwhile, James Freeman, the associate editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, wanted to be clear that it it was Bob Corker who provoked the Twitter fight with the president and not the other way around.:
While our President seems to have a knack for getting into ugly public disputes, a timeline constructed by CNN suggests that in this case Mr. Corker has been the aggressor. His criticisms have not been subtle. The senator has repeatedly attacked the President’s competence, stability and integrity.
Since Mr. Corker has lately been issuing public judgments about Mr. Trump’s integrity, it should also be noted--and here, too the CNN timeline is instructive--that Mr. Corker’s comments about Mr. Trump in 2016 were much more favorable than in 2017.
This is interesting because in 2016 Mr. Corker was under consideration for various jobs in a Trump Administration. It is also interesting because if one has sincere concerns about a candidate’s fitness for office, airing them before the election is obviously more valuable to voters than withholding them until after all the votes have been cast.
What We’re Watching:
While most in the conservative media were pointing out that Trump still has rock solid support among the base, an article in the right-leaning RealClearPolitics wondered if recent events have opened up the path for a third party.:
Might Trumpism fuel a counter-movement toward a multi-party system. A Pew poll released Tuesday suggests voters might be inclined to follow suit. The political topography survey shows significant fractures within both major parties, and sorts the sentiments into eight different constituencies. The largest groups are described as Core Conservatives and Solid Liberals, and they together make up about a third of the electorate. These two groups are the most politically engaged, the survey found, which underscores the polarization of the electorate. But the remaining 70 percent of voters in the other categories are of interest to people like Reed Galen, a former Republican operative who left the GOP last year and is now the chief strategist of the Serve America Movement, which aims to build a new political party.
What We’re Reading:
A third political party that represents the centrists of both parties sounds nice, but in case you missed it, The Atlantic has a pretty strong takedown of such wishful thinking. In it, the political correspondent Molly Ball follows Nancy Hale, founder of Third Way, a centrist think tank, around the country for a post election tour. Hale thinks she will find that people outside of Washington will wish for some common ground. Instead, she found unapologetic, rancorous rooting by voters of each side to crush the folks on the other side.
3. Twitter Trolls & Bots of the Right
One of the more influential Twitter handles we’ve cited in past newsletters was @Ten_GOP. The handle had 136K followers and shared links that were often retweeted by conservative influencers like Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, James Woods, and Anne Coulter, It claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans. Well, according to BuzzFeed, the account was actually one of many run by a Russian-tied troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency and was shut down in mid-August. The troll farm spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and assigned about 100 people to try to influence political attitudes in the U.S.. And according to the article, Twitter took nearly a year to shut the account down despite notifications from the state’s real Republican party that the account was fake.
We keep tabs on a lot of the conversations on the Right and have our suspicions about a few other handles that might be trolls -- or bots -- as well.
So, what’s the difference between a bot and a troll? For those who aren’t in the know, bots generally have a high-volume of tweets. (A tell-tale sign you are dealing with a bot is that it never seems to sleep). Bots also tend to focus on furthering their assigned goals by constantly retweeting items with numerous hashtags. They also often share little personal information. Here are tips for spotting a bot.
Meanwhile, trolls, like @ten_GOP, are real online users who are interested in deliberately trying to disrupt, attack, offend or generally cause trouble within a social community. And then there is, of course, the phenomenon of the sockpuppet -- someone impersonating someone else on social media or who has created a fictitious identity.
What We’re Watching:
According to The Verge, one way to spot bots is to use a system called Botometer, which was built by researchers at Indiana University and Northeastern University. The system looks at over 1,000 factors, from the tweets themselves (and metadata on how and where they were posted) to the composition of followers. It then provides a percentage score for a single handle that ranges from 1 to 100 percent. Botometer explains that higher scores are more “bot-like.” The tool is still a work in progress, but generally any score that is below 40 percent suggests that a user behind a Twitter handle is human. It is notable that when we experimented with a few of the top handles frequently shared by the Right, we found some potential bot culprits. For example, the populist European news network @v_of_europe,with 169K followers, scored a 62 percent. Meanwhile, @fiverights another prolific Twitter handle with 116,270 followers scored 52 percent. (Its avatar happens to feature a photo of Thurgood Marshall.) As a comparison, the verified Twitter user @jpodhoretz scored a 34 percent and @anncoulter scored a 35 percent. It is worth noting that Onur Varel, one of the researchers behind Botometer, says that bots are growing more sophisticated, becoming significantly harder to spot since he began studying them in 2011.
Another handy tool to help spot misleading content is TinEye -- a reverse image search. It is a good way of determining if images in memes are doctored or real.
4. Conservative Media Decline
On Tuesday, Axios reported that its analysis of online media analytics provided by comScore showed a sharp decline in traffic to conservative websites year over year from last August. Specifically, Breitbart was down by 20 percent, or 20 million unique visitors a months, and The Drudge Report was down by 22 percent, or 2 million uniques. Axios report that Independent Journal Review and The Daily Caller had far steeper declines, but both of those sites disputed comScore’s finding. Using their own traffic numbers, IJR was actually up and The Daily Caller was down, but marginally.
What’s interesting is that while the stories in the Mainstream Media about Bannon’s influence on the Senate election are reaching a fever pitch, Bannon’s base of operations seems to be in uncontestable decline.
Axios said that while conservative media sites were declining, business sites like CNBC and Bloomberg have been growing rapidly. Perhaps it’s because business coverage is one last area that hasn’t been entirely politicized.
What We’re Not Reading:
This week, the Chinese Communist party met at its annual congress and gave extraordinary new powers to the president and party leader Xi Jinping. Ten years ago, the consolidation of automatic power in a competing communist country might be the main focus of the conservative press. Instead, the alarm was much more palpable with the Mainstream Media.