Making the click-through worthwhile: Russia’s ham-fisted propaganda efforts, and what makes people gullible; the limits of the Assault Weapons Ban, then and now; a limited defense of FBI Director Christopher Wray; and a sign that Russian athletes cheat, even when it isn’t necessary for victory.
You Can’t Legislate Away the Desire to Believe the Lie
The New York Times looks at Russia’s propaganda efforts and offers an unflattering assessment of how easily Americans could be influenced by foreigners posing as out-of-town activists:
Heart of Texas and Blacktivist were phony groups, part of a sweeping Russian disinformation campaign that was funded with millions of dollars and carried out by 80 people operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Russian attempt at long-distance choreography was playing out in many cities across the United States. Facebook has disclosed that about 130 rallies were promoted by 13 of the Russian pages, which reached 126 million Americans with provocative content on race, guns, immigration and other volatile issues.
The Russian efforts were pretty devious, planning rallies for and against a particular perspective in the same time and place and hoping the two groups would confront each other.
The Heart of Texas group had more success with a Houston rally to “Stop the Islamization of Texas,” which provoked an angry confrontation in May 2016. United Muslims of America, another Russian creation, called its own rally to “Save Islamic Knowledge” for the same time and place, outside the Islamic Da’wah Center.
Although even in this case, the effect was . . . limited. Coverage at the time: “A rally outside the downtown Houston Islamic Da’wah Center Saturday attracted about a dozen protesters, more than 50 counter-protesters and a local resident armed with a fully charged bubble machine.”
Facebook’s vice president for advertising, Rob Goldman, is grumbling that the coverage of Russia’s online manipulation efforts is ignoring the fact that a lot of Russia’s social media efforts were so ham-fisted that they reached . . . no one:
44% of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were after the election.
Roughly 25% of the ads were never shown to anyone. That’s because advertising auctions are designed so that ads reach people based on relevance, and certain ads may not reach anyone as a result.
You may recall that most of the social-media materials the Russians were posting were not sophisticated messages or images. If anything, they were so over-the-top that they seemed too ridiculous to be genuinely persuasive. I mean, if you’re swayed by an image that suggests that Hillary Clinton is the devil and she wants to get into a boxing match with Jesus Christ . . . I’m pretty sure you were probably leaning against her already. The woman’s gotten into a heck of a lot of scandals, but I don’t think she’s ever explicitly challenged the Son of God to get into the UFC Octagon with her.
And if Hillary Clinton supporters really want to argue that they lost the votes of a segment of progressives because Bernie Sanders supporters were persuaded by muscular-Bernie cartoons . . . look, if that’s really the case, then it’s not Russia’s, Trump’s, or the Republicans’ fault that a part of the Democratic base is a bunch of easily-distracted shallow idiots. If your voters are getting deterred by doodles, they never really were “your” voters.
How do you get someone to believe a lie? It’s much easier if the mark wants to believe before the con begins. Right now, we have a lot of Americans who are quite eager to believe the worst about prominent figures on the other side. They choose not to distinguish between “I strongly disagree with this person’s political views” and “this person is terrible in every conceivable way.” That’s why we have Americans convinced that Obama was born overseas, and why we have Americans who believe the “pee tape” and evidence of Trump conspiring with Vladimir Putin is out there somewhere.
The Limits of the Assault Weapons Ban
Unsurprisingly, advocates of gun control insist that one of the best possible responses to the mass shooting in Florida is to reinstate the Assault Weapons Ban that was in effect from September 1994 to September 2004.
Those of you with long and accurate memories will recall that the Columbine shootings occurred while the Assault Weapons Ban was in effect, as well as another mass shooting in Atlanta the same year that killed twelve.
In late 2013, Northeastern University criminologists James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLateur wrote a detailed study that irked a lot of advocates on both sides by using data to dispel a lot of popular theories about mass shooters, from the danger of video games to the value of mental-health treatment to the effectiveness of security measures in schools. Among their conclusions: “a comparison of the incidence of mass shootings during the 10-year window when the assault weapon ban was in force against the time periods before implementation and after expiration shows that the legislation had virtually no effect, at least in terms of murder in an extreme form.”
Mother Jones calculated that of the 143 weapons used in mass shootings from 1982 to 2012, 48 would be banned under the revised version of the Assault Weapons Ban proposed in 2013. That’s about a third. It is worth recalling that some of the most infamous mass shooters of recent years used just handguns: the Virginia Tech shooter, the Umpqua Community College shooter, the Charleston church shooter, the 2014 Isla Vista shooter.
Keep Christopher Wray Until There’s a Better Option
This is one of the exceptionally rare moments when I disagree with Kevin Williamson, and I should note that I only disagree with the final conclusion of the final paragraph. Like almost everyone in America, Kevin is infuriated by the news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a fairly specific tip about the Florida shooter in January and failed to follow up on it.
The Friday press conference on that little oversight was a masterpiece of modern bureaucracy. The FBI has “protocols” for handling specific credible threats of that sort, “protocol” here being a way of saying, “Pick up the phone and call the local field office or, if we really want to get wild, the local police.” “The protocol was not followed,” the FBI bureaucrats explained. Well, no kidding. Why not? No answer — the question wasn’t even asked aloud. Did law enforcement’s ball-dropping mean that a preventable massacre went unprevented because of bureaucratic failure? “I don’t think anybody could say that,” says Broward County sheriff Scott Israel, who is leading the investigation. His department had over the years received no fewer than 20 calls related to the shooter. What about that? “Make no mistake about it, America, the only one to blame for this incident is the killer himself,” which is exactly the sort of thing a sanctimonious schmuck says when he doesn’t want to consider the institutional failures right in front of his taxpayer-subsidized nose and the culpable negligence — to say nothing of the sand-pounding stupidity — of his own agency.
The FBI has a budget of $3.5 billion, almost all of which goes to salaries, benefits, and other personnel costs. Do you know how many employees the FBI field office in South Florida has? It has more than 1,000. Do you know how many employees the FBI has in total? It has 35,158 employees. It has 13,084 agents and 3,100 intelligence analysts.
Kevin concludes, “Governor Rick Scott wants FBI director Chris Wray to resign. A self-respecting society would have him whipped.”
If you want to fire the person whose responsibility was to evaluate and forward the tip to the local bureau, fine. But it’s not like the FBI director himself is working the tip lines.
Wray was sworn in on August 2, 2017, so he’s been on the job for about six and a half months. Let’s assume that the failure to forward the tip to the local field office wasn’t a unique set of circumstances, and that it reflects a culture of complacency throughout the Bureau. Let’s assume that the accusations are correct, that the Bureau does a poor job of keeping track of all of the tips that come in, evaluating the accuracy or utility of those tips, and acting upon them in a timely manner. In March 2016, the Bureau boasted in a press release:
Tips to the FBI have led to captures of Top Ten fugitives and short-circuited scores of criminal and terrorist plots. Established in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the tip line receives about 100 “actionable” tips every day related to possible criminal, cyber, terrorism, and espionage acts. Since its inception, the public has submitted more than four million tips via the Internet at tips.fbi.gov. In addition, phone calls to FBI field offices result in thousands of pieces of reporting a day.
“We will check them all,” said William Dayhoff, head of the tips unit, which is staffed around the clock by about two-dozen Bureau employees. In most cases, after tips are assessed they are routed to FBI field offices and local law-enforcement agencies for follow-up.
How much time is it reasonable for an FBI Director to ask for before he is evaluated on progress in changing the culture of an organization? Six months? A year? Most sports franchises try to give coaches at least a year or two before concluding they stink and deserve to get axed. When does a team’s loss reflect bad coaching, and when does it just mean that the wide receiver dropped the game-winning pass?
We do know one thing about Wray: He will tell the truth, even when it is inconvenient for the White House.
Wray, in testimony on Capitol Hill, said the agency completed in late July a background check for security clearance for then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned under pressure last Wednesday amid the abuse allegations.
Wray’s comments conflicted with the White House assertion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and intelligence agencies had not completed investigations into Porter.
Wray and the FBI announced the embarrassing failure to act on the tip about the Florida shooter within 48 hours of the shooting. Owning up to a fiasco ought to count for something considering the recent history of bureaucratic cover-ups. News of the tip didn’t come from an inspector-general report or from a leak from Congress several weeks from now. That’s twice that we know Wray has told the truth, even when it is embarrassing or certain to cause political headaches.
You may have noticed that there’s been a lot of churn in the Trump administration, particularly in the realm of law enforcement. Trump fired Comey. Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand is stepping down to take a gig at Walmart. Trump criticizes Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Twitter, Sessions reportedly offered to resign at one point, and is allegedly fuming about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The president periodically refers to “the deep state Justice Department.”
Wray seems to be a straight shooter who is open about mistakes and broadly respected. Let’s not toss out guys like that unless we know we have a better option available.
ADDENDA: Russians: Even their curlers are doping. Dude, it’s housework on ice.