Massachusetts Unveils Early Voting To Decent Success

Everyone understands the major headache that accompanies waiting until Election Day to cast a vote in their state. The prospect of waiting for hours in lines stretching down the sidewalk for several blocks just to fill out one short questionnaire is frustrating. This year however, Massachusetts decided to take an extra step to provide ease of access to voters by instituting early voting, a successful policy already in place in some shape or form in 33 other states across the U.S. as well as the District of Columbia.

Thanks to tireless lobbying by fair voting organizations such as MassVOTE, Massachusetts officially adopted early voting in 2014. The bill provided an early voting process for biennial state elections. Voters in Boston starting October 24 (two whole weeks before election day) could take advantage of one of the numerous locations in and around the city to cast their vote during normal business hours. As Kyron Owens of the Boston Elections Commission explained, the process was a big hit among Boston residents. He cited a total of 39,504 ballots cast between Oct. 24 and Nov. 2 alone.

“A lot of the feedback has been really positive,” said Owens. “Most people feel that it’s a great initiative – they find that the lines move quickly.”

Photo by Janine Eduljee
“Your vote does count, your vote can be the difference,” Kyron Owens advises college voters. Photo by Janine Eduljee

Even with the many locations available, lines were still significantly long in some of the more popular locations like Boston City Hall. Wait times closer to the end of the day sometimes ranged well over two hours. Cam Wilson, a resident of Jamaica Plain, said she tried to originally vote in her town, but the sheer number of people at the polling center forced her to come to City Hall. To her dismay, the wait times there were even worse.

“I came [to City Hall] and saw this line,” said Wilson. “About halfway along this line I asked somebody if she had any estimate of how long it would be and she said she had been in line for an hour…and here she was not even on the steps yet to go into City Hall.”

Owens said that as time went by, higher volumes of voters turned out at early voting locations and the Elections Commission put in place several measures to combat the increased flow.

“We’ve tried to have more poll workers than you’d typically see on Election Day at a polling location,” said Owens. “We’ve also added electronic poll books to the check-in process which is, makes it faster for a voter lookup instead of having 255 books that someone would have to look though.”

Even with the large number of people using early voting, college students like Emma Nash were not deterred from trying to vote before Election Day.

“I was overwhelmed, but I knew it was going to be worse on Tuesday,” said Nash, a sophomore at Northeastern University. “It was a success in terms of choosing a time that works for you because if you’re going to wait in line no matter what, at least it should be a time that you’re not stressing out about it.”

Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, a nonpartisan organization whose goal is to help educate and mobilize voters (particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised from voting) says she feels early voting has definitely made a difference in its initial year.

“It made a great difference – to have a million votes in the state of Massachusetts before Election Day is huge,” said Crawford. She also added that “[they’re] really happy to have been part of the organizations that made it possible in 2014 for Gov. Deval Patrick to sign that bill into effect.”

Many states still do not have early voting systems, and even with states that have early voting systems many undecided voters may elect to wait until Election Day to give enough time to decide on a candidate.

“Early voting makes a lot of sense, it’s a good policy,” said Drew Penrose of the nonpartisan electoral reform organization Fair Vote. “It allows people to vote in a way that’s easier for them where they can have more access to information and it reduces the strain on polling places on Election Day.”

Penrose was also quick to caution that high turnout numbers in certain states this year probably didn’t correlate as much with voting access measures and instead had more to do with the fundamental change in opinion of voters.

“The reason people will get out to vote in high numbers is if they feel like the election really matters to them,” explained Penrose. “If people live in a safe state or district and they feel like their vote isn’t actually going to help elect anybody, then they’re less likely to vote. If you can address that first, make sure that when people vote their votes really count, then that will really drive up turnout a lot more than many of the efforts that people engage in to try to get people to vote.”

In the end, early voting was an attempt to help to simplify an act that historically Americans have held as a constitutional and moral right for citizens, and have fought long and hard to ensure for all Americans, regardless of race, gender or other discrimination.

“It’s critical because if you want your voice heard, if you want representation, you must go out and vote,” added Crawford. “It’s just a matter of making sure that you get your voice on record.”

 

A few thoughts on local journalism

This strays quite a bit from my normal beat here on this blog, but I wanted to mention a topic we had the opportunity to discuss in our Digital Storytelling class at Northeastern University today and that was the idea of ‘hyperlocal’ journalism – outlets that are dedicated to serving a specific geographical town or city area (different from the so-called mainstream media). Our class had the privilege of speaking with Paul Bass, a renowned digital journalist credited with starting the highly successful New Haven Independent and corresponding radio station WNHH.

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Screenshot

The publication is solely online but features a wealth of multimedia coverage, including video production and online podcasts of their radio content. The slogan of the publication when you search for it on Google is “It’s Your Town. Read All About It,” and that’s a pretty good summary of what the Independent offers residents of the greater New Haven, Connecticut area (famous for housing one of the ivy league creme de la creme, Yale University). They cover just about anything and everything you could want to know about your hometown, from crime to government and human interest stories in between. One really cool feature is a sidebar link on the homepage to SeeClickFix which is an online community reporting tool that allows residents to post issues (i.e. pothole problem near 201 Pruder Lane) and other residents and local officials to see those and help fix the solutions (hence the catchy title).

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It’s a valuable resource for New Haven-ians (not sure what the residents there call themselves) but it’s a very unique one in this day and age. These types of ‘our town’ outlets used to be a staple in every major town and city in America not even 20 years ago, but have been dying out at an alarming rate due to decreased demand for print. In Boston where I attend school, even the Globe fell prey to this phenomenon when they decided to end the “Your Town” section of Boston.com, which used to provide an outlet for such hyperlocal stories to be published. Bass explained how their business model was able to flourish despite languishing interest in print publications, by using an online platform and relying on grants and outside funding to support staff journalists.

It got me thinking about my own hometown publication, The Chapel Hill News, which is a local free print weekly (delivered to the front doors of all Chapel Hill residents) owned by the larger regional publication The News & Observer. While the N&O services the entire ‘Triangle’ area (Chapel Hill, Durham and our NC capital Raleigh), Chapel Hill News is wonderfully centric to my community, focusing solely on town news (community projects, crime and announcements). It also features on a regular basis highly insightful, poignant and well written columns from the staff writers (that can be anything from funny anecdotes to soliloquies on our rabid college basketball season). Of course I’ll admit that when I was a kid I went straight to the comics section, but I really began to value its work as I got older and actually began reading the whole paper. I valued it even more after I went away to college, and felt oddly comforted to see its presence on my dinner table when I would come home. The editions have become increasingly thinner over the years, as presumably less and less people read their news on hardcopy, but it makes me wonder what remedies might work for Chapel Hill going forward to ensure it continues to remain in print as the industry declines. I cannot stress how important hyperlocal journalism is, whether you live in a major city or a rural town in the middle of nowhere, because it invites you into the lives of the people in your community in a way no other medium can. Both reporters and readers alike need to think about how we can all support our community press as we enter a new digital age.

Flag Burning and the President-Elect: A Cautionary Tale

 

Photo (CC) by Steve Rhodes
Photo (CC) by Steve Rhodes

Donald Trump has yet to ascend to the presidency and already through multiple actions seems poised to become a possible threat to Americans’ First Amendment liberties when he takes office in January. He has already threatened to strengthen libel laws to make it easier for public officials to sue journalists for unfavorable coverage, severely limited press access to his administration, and has now made headlines with a recent tweet about punishing flag burners as president.

But if Trump thinks a Twitter threat will hold much weight as president, he clearly is not aware of the enormous volume of common law precedent and constitutional provisions that prevent such punishment from ever happening. As this Politico article explains, there have already multiple Supreme Court cases which have all ruled flag burning as constitutional under a citizen’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech (even what the court deems “symbolic speech” like for example burning a flag in protest).  Even staunch textualists (Supreme Court justices who base their decisions on a literal reading of the Constitution) like the late Antonin Scalia have sided on the right to protest over any possible unpatriotic concerns. Scalia was even quoted in 2015 as saying: “If it were up to me, I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag. But I am not king.” And neither is President-Elect Donald Trump for that matter, because the very punishment he recommended for accused flag-burners in terms of “loss of citizenship” has also been struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a 1958 case because it violated the Eighth Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.” As you may have guessed, criminal action (such as jail time) would be near impossible due to the Supreme Court’s unwavering stance on the issue – no lower court would be able to prosecute a flag burner without going against the Supreme Court’s authority of ‘stare decisis’ (i.e. lower courts, as well as the Supreme Court, are bound to follow the precedents SCOTUS sets).

So if Trump can’t really do anything, even as President of the United States, to punish protestors who burn American flags, then why is this tweet even a story at all? I would argue that the very threat itself, although legally hollow, is extremely worrisome as a journalist and should be concerning to all citizens who value free speech. It suggests that Trump has complete disregard for the Bill of Rights, or perhaps just doesn’t understand how constitutional rights work. As this MSNBC article notes, the only reason Trump even bothered to tweet so outrageous a claim was because allegedly he viewed a “Fox and Friends” segment about students burning a flag, and tweeted as a reaction. But as the author of the article Steven Benen points out, this too is concerning:

“…As far as Trump is concerned, if the president-elect disagrees with your constitutionally protected political speech, he envisions a system in which you may face imprisonment or the loss of your American citizenship. He casually mentions stripping political protesters of their citizenship rights as a remedy to legal speech Trump doesn’t like.”

Even top establishment Republicans who have been adamant supporters of Trump, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have disagreed with Trump on this issue, distancing from the president-elect where flag burning is concerned. Said McConnell on the matter to Politico, “The Supreme Court has held that that activity is a protected First-Amendment right, a form of unpleasant speech, and in this country we have a long tradition of respecting unpleasant speech. I happen to support the Supreme Court’s decision on that matter.”

It’s key to note that a ban on flag burning is not impossible, just that it has historically been near impossible to enact because it would require no less than a constitutional amendment. Though one has been proposed many times, most recently in 2005, but each time has not gained enough support to pass. And even with the current GOP-led Senate and House, it is highly unlikely that were another bill proposed that it would pass, because most all Republicans have asserted that flag burning, although an unsavory act, is a citizen’s right in this country.

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention this Trump interview on Letterman that happened just last year, where he quite literally contradicted his own views in the tweet, telling the late night host that interpreting flag burning as protected under freedom of expression was “100 percent right.”

While you could simply write this off as a typical Trump turnaround, trying to pander to the voters who elected him, this is no longer campaign season and we all need to recognize that Trump’s outlandish claims, whether on Twitter or not, have real consequences now. If Trump has an unfavorable meeting with a world leader and takes to social media to criticize and even insult that country, it could have devastating repercussions for the entire country (even dangerous ones). If there is any insight to be gleaned from this latest empty threat, it is that Trump needs to think long and hard before going public with policy changes or legislative agendas, because the stakes are incredibly high now.

What Is Alt-Right? How To Define A New Ideological Movement

Screenshot of webpage
Screenshot of Breitbart website

Ever since Steve Bannon was first selected to replace Corey Lewandowski as the Trump campaign manager, journalists and news consumers alike have been struggling to understand exactly what the term “alt-right” means. My common knowledge understanding is that it is a viewpoint promoted by Bannon’s conservative news website Breitbart, and many other Trump supporters. Alt-right supporters can be classified as just about as socially conservative as you can get, embracing white supremacist and white nationalist views and abhorring any liberal policies. The alt-right term came front and center when Bannon was nominated by Trump to be chief strategist in the White House. As the Washington Post article defines it, alt-right is “a fringe conservative movement saturated with racially insensitive rhetoric and elements of outright white nationalism.”

Probably the most prominent political organization representing the alt-right disposition is the National Policy Institute. The group made headlines just after the election by hosting an annual conference in Washington, D.C. where, among other things, there was a Nazi-esque white pride salute to Trump stating “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” The National Policy Institute is lead by Richard Spencer, considered to be the creator of the alt-right political movement. In his own words, here is one dream he hopes the alt-right movement will accomplish:

“Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence,” said Spencer in an interview with Vice in 2013.

Below is a video from The Atlantic from the controversial dinner:

Breitbart themselves issued a ‘establishment conservative’s guide to the alt-right’ earlier this year. By their own admission in the second paragraph of the article, the movement is “amorphous” at best. The article was quick to dispel all negative connotations the alt-right movement had secured from the media: anti-Semitism, white supremacy, racism. Instead the article detailed in length that contrary to popular belief, the “subculture” which entered the political sphere in 2015 was made of the following subgroups: intellectuals, “natural” conservatives, the neo-Nazi “1488ers” and most comically meme makers. I will admit that after reading the extensive study into the alt-right base, I was thoroughly befuddled and gained no deeper an understanding of the alt-right movement than I previously had, other than the fact that apparently internet trolls constituted a portion of their base.

All accounts seem to equate alt-right with white supremacist and neo-Nazi views. The issue then becomes how media outlets should utilize (or even if they should utilize) the nebulous and often confusing term alt-right when referring to Spencer, Bannon and members of the movement. Should the much milder sounding alt-right term continue to be employed, or should outlets elect to refer to the movement by what truly lurks underneath: white supremacy? A significant portion of Trump supporters after all did cast their votes in light of Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric. Ironically enough, Trump has repeatedly distanced himself from the alt-right movement.

A New York Times article posted yesterday detailed major news organizations’ struggle with the term. According to the report, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Times and NPR have all created new ethical guidelines specifying how to use it. All the outlets elected not to ban usage of the term, but instead suggested that reporters try and put an explainer afterwards (i.e. the leader of the alt-right movement, a political movement associated with white supremacist and nationalist hyper conservative views). And why not espouse the title completely? Nicole Hemmer, an assistant media professor at the University of Virginia, explained it best in this quote to the Times:

“In the case of the alt-right, I think that the tendency has been to want to simply do away with the term and use the term ‘white nationalist,’ but I don’t think that captures the stew of hate,” Existing terms, including white nationalism, do not reflect the group’s distinct history, media tactics or myriad hostilities, including its “hard-core misogyny,” she said.”

The head of standards for the Associated Press, John Daniszewski, wrote a blog post Monday explaining their decision to modify style guidelines. He stated that reporters had an obligation to provide a definition after citing the title alt-right, because it was their duty to define the group not by their own self-definition, but by how their actions and historical perception defined them. The AP has also stated that alt-right must be put in quotation marks whenever used, and should be preceded by “so-called” or “self-described.”

In an interesting turn of events, an advertising professional from New York just unveiled a new Google Chrome plugin that will automatically convert any mentions of the term “alt-right” to read “white supremacy” on any webpage.

Clinton Joins Stein in Recount Effort

This past Friday, after a weeklong fundraising effort and an estimated $5 million donated, Jill Stein filed for a petition to recount the vote in the state of Wisconsin. That was followed today by recount petitions in the state of Pennsylvania on Stein’s behalf. The recount movement began after a piece was published in New York magazine the week before, detailing how several cybersecurity experts had allegedly approached the Clinton campaign and urged her to consider petitioning for recounts in three key swing states won by Donald Trump (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan). According to the article, the analysts examined voting patterns and how the votes were cast and found some startling inconsistencies – for example, in Wisconsin Clinton gained 7 percent fewer votes in counties that used electronic voting as opposed to counties with paper ballots which could have cost her roughly 30,000 votes (and she only lost Wisconsin by 27,000 votes). While none of the experts directly cited Russian-based hackers as a potential threat, the recent Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee certainly made them nervous about possible election hacking (and others have stressed that the likelihood of a hack was minuscule at best). The deadline to file for a recount in Wisconsin was Friday and the Stein camp was just able to meet it, along with Pennsylvania’s recount deadline today.

After Stein initially announced her intentions to challenge the results in those three states, the Clinton camp stayed silent until after the recount petition was officially filed in Wisconsin Friday, when members of Clinton’s top circle (not the candidate herself, who is still taking a much needed vacation in Rhode Island) said that they would support it and the subsequent recount efforts in Pennsylvania and Michigan to “ensure the process proceeds in a manner that is fair to all sides,” according to Marc Elias, a campaign lawyer for Clinton. It’s no secret that many of Clinton’s aides are still very bitter about the surprise electoral college results that provided Donald Trump with the election despite the fact that Clinton won the nation’s popular vote by over 2 million votes. But the fact that solely these three key states are in question for possible election fraud lends more weight to the challengers, because if the results were all found to be in favor of Clinton rather than Trump she would win the electoral college. Currently Trump has 290 electoral votes, compared to 232 for Clinton (not including Michigan whose race is still too close to call). If Michigan’s 16 votes go to Clinton, and then Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with 20 and 10 electoral votes respectively, that will bump Clinton up to 278, just putting her over the electoral college threshold needed to win.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Trump himself claimed frequently in the weeks leading up to the election that the voting system was ‘rigged,’ perhaps anticipating as the media had that Clinton would easily cinch the electoral college. After the Wisconsin recount effort came to pass on Friday, Trump began a rant on Twitter, alleging that in fact he had probably won the popular vote as well but that due to illegal immigrant voter fraud in key states that Clinton won (Virginia, New Hampshire and California) the popular vote was given to Clinton. While simply continuing his theme of widespread election corruption, Trump himself appears to be unsure that the results were 100 percent accurate, although he condemned Stein and Clinton’s recount efforts.

Surprisingly enough, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders dismissed the recount effort as a Green Party initiative not supported by Democrats on Sunday in an interview on ABC’s This Week. Even after acknowledging that the Clinton camp had signed on to the effort, Sanders said it was highly unlikely anything would change the election outcome:

“We will see what happens. It’s a legal right. It’s not a big deal. I don’t think anybody, Secretary Clinton or anybody else, thinks that there’s going to be profound changes.”

Donald Trump and the Media: A Relationship Unlikely to Improve

Photo (CC) by Disney
George Stephanopoulos interviews Donald Trump. Photo (CC) by Disney

To say that during his roughly year and a half long campaign, Donald Trump had a less than civil relationship with the media would be a gross understatement. On the campaign trail he would frequently revoke certain news organizations’ access to his events if he didn’t like their coverage, going so far as to single out reporters he despised. He never let the press enter his campaign plane and hasn’t held a legitimate press conference since July. And even after taking office, Trump has ditched his standard White House press pool to among other things go out to dinner with his family. None of these actions have instilled any degree of confidence in reporters, especially those whose beat is the White House.

As a member of the press myself, I was keenly interested in the news Monday that president-elect Donald Trump took a meeting with some of the biggest names in TV news, from anchors like Lester Holt and George Stephanopoulos to major executives from all the networks. The meeting unsurprisingly enough consisted largely of Trump disparaging the representatives for coverage he deemed “deceitful, dishonest.” The whole proceeding was established beforehand as off-the-record, but not even a few hours later miraculously the New York Post had a story about the meeting and how much Trump had reprimanded the TV news elite. Media columnists from the Washington Post Erik Wemple and Margaret Sullivan explain just what happened very well here:

//www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/cd8a7f32-b0da-11e6-bc2d-19b3d759cfe7

While it could never be proven that it was the Trump administration who provided the leak, the provision for off-the-record nevertheless gave Trump a chance to control the story the way he wanted, thoroughly berate the reporters he had despised since the campaign’s initiation and there was nothing they could do about it. Once again Trump used the media to his advantage in order to further his own interests.

Then just a day later Trump had scheduled a meeting at the New York Times to presumably have a discussion with a similar flavor. At first Trump actually cancelled the meeting, tweeting this:

And then not even 30 minutes later:

In fact, the Times staff actually only learned that the meeting was off from Trump’s tweets. But Trump did finally agree to meet and luckily this time the media had learned its lesson because their conversation was not off-the-record and Times reporters were live tweeting the whole time. While Trump eventually delved into his stances on issues and took important questions from the staff, he did begin the talk just like the one on Monday, by thoroughly rebuking the reporters for their coverage:

“I have great respect for the New York Times. I have tremendous respect,” Trump said, according to the Times’ Mike Grynbaum. But, he added, “I think I’ve been treated very rough… I will say the Times is about the roughest of all.” According to Grynbaum, Trump also said, “You could make the case the Washington Post was bad, but every once in while I actually got a good article.”

The Times then published an in-depth article describing exactly what was talked about, giving them a chance to control the story in this instance and providing full transparency to the public. While some of the discussion was productive, a lot of the time Trump defiantly refused to waver on certain criticisms, such as the one I wrote about earlier this week regarding possible conflicts of interest in the White House.

Both of these meetings demonstrate a dangerous possible precedent for the Trump presidency moving forward. Press access to the president is one of the greatest checks on power for the executive branch – in many situations the media is the sole watchdog on presidential authority and providing that level of transparency is a key public service. But even more worrisome as this BBC article explains, is that the public does not seem to hold this role in as high a regard as they did in the past:

“[Trump] uses the media as a punching bag. He fights dirty, unleashing tirades and bashing reporters on Twitter. This puts journalists in a bad spot. When it comes to covering Trump, it seems, they can’t win. They report the facts – or try to – but people still don’t like them.”

This puts the press in an increasingly impossible situation, faced on one hand with a president notorious for secrecy, blatant lies and an eagerness to control the message, and on the other a country that is growing steadily more tired of their coverage of Trump (even when they call him out on the lies). It remains to be seen exactly how reporting will work moving forward: will Trump continue to demand more meetings be off-the-record? Will Trump keep tweeting angry messages to the press once he assumes the Oval Office? Will there even be a press corp in this White House? All very important questions to consider.

Conflict of Interest? How Trump’s Business Ties Will Affect Presidency

Photo of Trump Tower in Chicago by Janine Eduljee
Photo of Trump Tower in Chicago by Janine Eduljee

Donald Trump largely ran and won his campaign on a platform of economic revitalization for America with the big assertion that as a “successful” businessman and real estate tycoon, he would know firsthand how to solve America’s biggest financial problems and ensure steady growth throughout his four (and possible eight) years in office. The big selling point for many of his supporters was that Trump was a wealthy CEO and possessing a great savvy for the “Art of the Deal,” would be able to apply that knowledge to the country’s fiscal structure. But one big issue which has been frequently cited by news organizations preceding and following the election is the idea that Trump is still currently the head of a business empire and will continue to be throughout his presidency (despite claims that he will be shifting the responsibility to his children, even as he co-opts them for his West Wing advisory roles). This raises serious concerns about where Trump’s interests will ultimately lie as commander in chief, because while he will be leading our country for four years, he could also stand to make a profit from any policies he may enact. But an even more serious ethical dilemma is that on the flip side, any countries or corporations with business connections to the Trump empire might reasonably hope to use those ties and gain influence and power with American interests.

Case in point is the New York Times article published today entitled “Indian Business Partners Hope To Exploit Their Ties To Donald Trump.” The article explains in detail how real estate developers involved with Trump Towers Prune, two almost complete $2 million dollar luxury apartment towers in the city of Prune, India, hope to profit extensively off of Trump’s election as the value of the apartments will rise in the market with his ascension to presidency. Pranav R. Bhakta, a key business adviser to Trump in India, explained the valuation increase best here:

“To say, ‘I have a Trump flat or residence’ — it’s president-elect branded. It’s that recall value. If they didn’t know Trump before, they definitely know him now.”

Developers on the project like Atul Chordia and Sagar Chordia were reported to have engaged in a serious business meeting with Trump in New York just last week, although Atul downplayed it as a “‘two minute’ congratulatory conversation.” Sagar did affirm that they discussed future business endeavors and plans for more developments in the area.

The towers, pictured above from a Twitter image, are just one example of how Trump could easily use his newly elevated status to further his own interests, and how his partners could exploit that status to do the same. Robert S. Stern, a lawyer, explained that any time president-elect Trump were to meet with representatives from the many countries where his business interests lie, potential conflicts could arise:

“It already looks like he is using his position as president-elect to promote something in India that would benefit him financially. It is not presidential — or at least presidential before him.”

As a Washington Post article similarly reports, Turkey is not only a country rife with inner turmoil and conflicts with Western interests – it is also home to Trump Towers Istanbul. The owner of that apartment complex happens to be one of the wealthiest individuals in the country and also an avid supporter of Erdogan’s regime, a leader President Obama has condemned as anti-democratic, even as Turkey remains a NATO ally for the U.S. The question positioned here would be what would happen if Erdogan’s actions forced the U.S. to split those ties or distance themselves – would Trump be able to do that when potential business deals might be at stake? A former ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, Richard Painter, doesn’t seem to think so:

“If we’ve got to talk to a foreign government about their behavior, or negotiate a treaty, or some country asks us to send our troops in to defend someone else, we’ve got to make a decision. And the question becomes: Are we going in out of our national interest or because there’s a Trump casino around?”

All these questions will surely come to greater attention come January when Trump is officially sworn into office.

Did Fake News Decide This Election?

Photo (CC) by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos
Photo (CC) by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

One particular story getting a lot of social media attention after the end of the election last week is fake news, and how it may have greatly influenced and possibly even decided the results. BuzzFeed recently released an in-depth study which found that viral fake news stories were actually found to be shared more times on Facebook during the last leg of the election than real news. Think about that for a moment: in the last months of the election, when many undecided voters were being swayed in one direction or another, many Americans were reading (and sharing) predominantly completely falsified stories such as these top three performers:

  • “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement”
  • “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons To ISIS…Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking News”
  • “IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked And It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined”

According to BuzzFeed’s method, they surveyed the top shared stories in the final three months of the campaign, and found that the top 20 authentic news stories got 7,367,000 shares/reactions/comments on Facebook, whereas the top 20 fake news stories got 8,711,000 (over a million more engagements).

Screenshot from web.
Screenshot from web.

So just who are the people writing these stories? Well the Washington Post was actually able to interview one named Paul Horner, a 38-year-old fake news kingpin who has created an “empire” of sorts, garnering an unthinkable income from publishing hundreds of fabricated articles that get picked up on Facebook, Google and other platforms. He started putting out Trump-centric faux stories as a kind of a joke, because as he described it Trump supporters “never fact-check anything.” Yet those articles began taking off, even getting shares from people like Corey Lewandowski (ex-campaign manager for Trump) and Eric Trump. As he explained:

 “I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it. I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff — like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line — and people went along with it!”

So it seems that the root of the issue lies less in people making these fake news stories to “troll” online, and more in the media and Trump’s constituency failing to effectively fact check Trump’s outrageous claims (because the sentiment generally was if the statement was off-kilter and if it was attributed to Trump then he most likely said it).

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg responded to the accusations that the sharing of these news stories decided the election by asserting that there was simply no way it could have had that much of an influence. At the Techonomy conference in California last week he said this:

“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news.”

Facebook and Google have been trying very hard to somehow thwart the proliferation of these clickbait stories but it is quite difficult, even with ad-blocking technology. Facebook and Google responded to the growing accusations that their reckless disregard may have led to a Trump presidency early this week by announcing they would be cutting off ad access that these fake news sites use to post their content on Facebook. But as Horner stated in his interview with the Post, while that would lose him quite a bit of money, he could easily find a way around it by “getting hooked up under different names and sites.”

In the end the problem is more insidious and all-encompassing than even the tech companies know how to handle at the moment, and it has a real toll on American politics. The greatest threat to our democratic system is an uninformed and misinformed electorate – if they do not possess the right tools to make a fact-based decision about the leader of our country, that completely erodes our electoral process.

 

Trump Presidential Transition Already Off To Bumpy Start

Photo (CC) by Gage Skidmore
Photo (CC) by Gage Skidmore

President-elect Donald Trump made headlines this weekend when he named Reince Priebus, current chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Steve Bannon (head of alt-right publication Breitbart) as chief of staff and chief strategist respectively. The appointments have already raised a stir within the Republican party: moderates are disappointed with Bannon’s appointment, as he is known for making racist comments and purporting conspiracy theories in his publiction. Alternatively grassroots supporters are angry at Trump for snubbing Bannon for the chief of staff position. CNN reported that internal arguments over Trump’s many cabinet appointments have wracked his first week as president-elect, quoting an insider who called it a glorified “knife-fight” to pick the most powerful people in the West Wing. Eliot Cohen, a longtime Trump critic and previous advisor for the Bush administration, tweeted this just yesterday:

Trump had appointed his vice president Pence to run the transition team, which for those unfamiliar with the term is a group of advisors who help ensure that the transition of power from one administration to another is as smooth as possible. Going from President Obama, a left-leaning Democrat and first black president, to President-elect Trump, a far right conservative often decried for racist rhetoric was guaranteed to be a monumental task from the start. Pence’s first move was apparently to outlaw any lobbyists from being part of the transition team.

It’s important to note that Pence was not the original pick to head the team: Trump had first selected New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but then replaced him soon after the ‘Bridgegate’ saga came to a head Friday with two of Christie’s close aides being convicted of fraud. Trump is now reportedly distancing himself as far as possible from anything Christie-related, including “purging” anyone allied with the embattled governor from the transition team. As one source quoted in Politico put it, Christie “will still be around,” and I think we can all presume that does not bode well for his future in the administration, as he is now probably unlikely to get anything in the cabinet. Former Rep. Mike Rogers was one of the casualties of the Christie annexation, resigning from the transition after he reported a “Stalinesque” environment following his ally Christie’s departure.

And then of course there’s the matter of Trump’s children and extended family, and their controversial involvement in his administration. There is actually a congressional law on the books, 5 U.S. Code § 3110 or the ‘anti-nepotism’ law as it’s usually referred to, that bars a president or any elected official for that matter from appointing any relatives to his/her own “agency” which in this case would be the West Wing. This came into question when Trump alluded to the fact that his children would continue to hold unofficial advisory roles within the administration, and then went even further to request national security clearance for son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner has no national security experience, unlike Gen. Michael Flynn who is the likely pick for Trump’s national security advisor role, and it seems unlikely that he will even receive the clearance especially with this law in place.

All of this simply goes to show that from the starting gate this presidency has been an unorthodox one to say the least. The admonitions from both parties, in-fighting and Trump’s tendency to favor friends and family over conceivably more qualified and experienced individuals, it all spells trouble for Trump’s first 100 days in the White House.