Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Why conventional activists dislike independent journalists, to the point of wanting to close "us" all down

On Monday, I discussed a video by Tim Pool on the problems of local journalism, and on how activists seem to be trying to make a “hostile takeover” of independent journalist activity.
Before moving on, I want also to share a video where Tim interviews Ford Fischer, from News2share, a small online newspaper started a few years ago by some American University students in Washington DC. (Why isn’t it https?)  It does appear as though the service focuses on political demonstrations from the more extreme factions on both the Left and Right.

In this video (made Aug 14) Tim interviews Ford on Facebook’s taking down his live stream of the abortive “United the Right 2” on Aug. 12, and this event did not amount to much. I’ll let the viewer watch the video for explanations, but I want to move on to the main point of this post.

Recall that in the Monday video, Tim had described the practice of “mission driven” reporting, where reporters seem to be trying to get viewers to support a particular cause, or to volunteer to provide service to those in some specific need, or (often) a combination of both.  (I’ll add that piecemeal service experiences don’t work for me unless I am dedicated to “the cause”, but that gets out of bounds here.)

This leaves me with the basic question:  Who gets to call him/herself an independent journalist or citizen journalist and function as such?  Electronic Frontier Foundation has said, anyone.  In the earlier days of the Internet, it seemed as though citizen journalists were adding much nuance to debate and keeping politicians and major media honest.  Overseas, they were helping foment uprisings, like the Arab Spring. But since about 2012 interests of those in power have encroached on this and perverted it, leading to the enormous political meddling on social media by foreign interests, especially before the 2016 election.  As Tim’s broadcast Monday showed, it is harder for guild and established professionals in legacy media to make a living today, not so much because of piracy (SOPA, 2011) but partly because of amateur media produced practically for free and channeled into social media, competing with legacy. Actor/writer Reid Ewing had hinted at this problem back in 2012 with his own short films based on the idea “It’s Free”.  

At this point, it’s important to note that Tim Pool does say he makes a living with Timcast, and he does ask for a small subscription donation. I do donate to Patreon (small) and I can’t comment further right now on how it works. Ford Fischer’s video today also discusses issues with YouTube monetization, which implies that revenue from his work does matter.

My own “business model” however is different.  Most of my material is free (except the printed and Kindle/Nook books) and advertising revenue (Adsense, Amazon associates) is very small and not critical to my operation.  I am “retired” from information technology and can support the work with accumulated savings, some of it inherited. (Some of the inheritance remains in trusts, so there are legal limits on how I can use that part of it.)  I don’t have impressive numbers or sales, but on a few occasions I am pretty sure I have had a disproportionate impact on public policy for just one person. 

 OK, that sounds “wrong”;  nobody voted for me;  I didn’t run a for office a conventional way.
I got into this whole activity, as a second career, in the late 1990s with my first book (“Do Ask Do Tell I”) motivated by the gays in the military debate and my relation to it given my own autobiography. The first printing of the book in 1997 did sell reasonably well, but in time I got attention mainly by putting the book, along with many notes, online and getting, over time, some hundreds of thousands of visitors from search engines, with almost no marketing effort on my own. Yet, the world of conventional activism would see me as a "watcher" or "spectator" (the villain in the Netflix film "Rebirth"), definitely not to be admitted to Burning Man in Nevada. 

My normal IT work career ended at age 58 at the end of 2001 (after 9/11); although I did sub-teaching and debt collection and other odd jobs, my career settled into blogging – but about almost everything on policy.

The military ban (and don’t ask don’t tell policy) was an unusual issue in that formed a kernel around which to encase most other public policy issues involving the tension between individualism and socialization. That’s practically everything, especially free speech and First Amendment issues, but also getting to race and also to immigration and gun control.  For example, I became a plaintiff against COPA, under EFF sponsorship.

One problem is that my style of work, developed with flat sites dependent on search engines before modern social media (esp. Facebook) took hold, made me very public and in time precluded me from working for anyone else.  How could I credibly court people to sell them financial products (following my own IT career)?  How could I credibly have direct reports in the workplace if people could find my writings easily and develop the idea I could have “discriminatory” views of some subordinates?

I’ve written about all this in great detail before.  But what I want to focus on now is that the respect for the value of free self-distributed speech, which had evolved quickly in the late 1990s with the WWW and which we had come to take for granted (that is partly what the 2006 COPA trial was about) has deteriorated gradually since about 2012, especially in 2016 with the Trump campaign, election and presidency.

One of the basic concerns about a model like mine is asymmetry.  I don’t seem to have much personal skin in the game (although in the past I did). Actually, when it started, it probably came across as Timcast’s idea of  “mission driven” (ending the military ban, which was more than just DADT). But I was unusual in that I would present “both sides” with some thoroughness, and I never tried to urge readers to “take action”.  I was willing to discuss the “barracks privacy” and “unit cohesion” arguments, for example; these are largely forgotten today but held considerable sway in the Clinton years.  9/11 would cause many more nuances to develop in the issue.
But today an activist, particularly on the Left, would see me as just meddling.  I would bring up arguments that activists see as already settled;  my mentioning them would only have the bad effect of encouraging others to resurrect them.  Conventional activism, especially intersectionality, was taking on tribalism and solidarity, requiring a collective combativeness to protect others in the group. 

While my own speech did not usually get fed into echo chambers by algorithms, it probably would be viewed as part of the same problem:  gratuitous speech (“I told you so”) which gives the speaker the psychological luxury of feeling better than the “losers” who had turned to tribalism. Why won’t you wear shorts in public, Bill?

In today’s environment, when combined with other problems (especially FOSTA and other erosions of Section 230), platforms might see speech like mine as attracting unpredictable risk and therefore unwelcome.  The Ford Fischer video emphasized the fact that it is just very low cost competition, maybe driving people out of jobs.

One idea that could contain the risk is to require that all websites (and “professional” social media pages) be self-supporting by normal standards of accounting  (unless belonging to companies or organizations somehow registered, which then have to give their own accounting), carry media insurance, and offer multiple contact points.  I don’t think it requires too much imagination, however, to realize that this would lead to a system much more like China’s. It would also be much smaller in the number of jobs offered, at least as American industry is set up now.  But that leads to the whole discussion of trade, tariffs, and business models that Trump has made so much noise about.

You can imagine a similar idea with the self-published book POD industry, where books (might) have to actually sell a certain volume or be taken down.  True, many self-published (especially "vanity")  authors don’t need to make money on what they publish, but the argument is, this is bad for the reputation of the industry and for authors that do need to make a living just from writing.  It almost sounds like a variation on the vaccination denial problem.

But it is useful, at least as a “dangerous” (following Milo Yiannopoulos’s trademarked vocabulary) thought experiment, to imagine what such a regime would require of someone like me.  

Remember, until the late 1990s we really did not have the capacity for unregulated user generated content to attract attention to one’s own political theories.  Put simply, if you wanted to be heard, you had to join up with others with similar concerns.  Yup, this sounds pretty much like left-wing ideas of solidarity and tribalism.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed “I am your voice” to his base.  And sites like Truth-out repeatedly beg for money and claim only they can speak for me (often in a threatening tone).

Yup, in the world before the Internet, you had to be used to the idea that you had other people’s backs and they had yours, politically, even if many of them did not appeal to you. This could be a big problem when you wanted to argue “personal responsibility” in the context of gay rights and we were coming out of the worst of the AIDS crisis of the 80s. 

One of the ideas that kept shifting underneath conservative social values was that the way people accept risks or pass on them and let others take them on, itself has moral significance. That is somewhat the heart of Nicholas Taleb’s “Skin in the Game” book and argument. It certainly was a big factor in the way we thought about the draft.  Risk sharing was more clearcut in a world where gender was binary and valued as such. That whole way of thinking gets wiped away, however, in a world where everything having to do with gender has to be “fluid”, and to say otherwise is “hate speech”.  See how “The Left” especially wants to take a lot of things off the table and force people to be organized into their structures.  But the alt-right wants to do the same thing, with a different set of parameters and players.

One of the “benefits” for some people of rigid social systems (with enforced "rightsizing", maybe even leading to Chins's planned social credit scores) is that it is easier to get off on them in building one’s own relationships.  There is a tendency toward upward affiliation socially, and an insistence that one not ever have to look at the lepers, the untouchables, those left behind. What seems like personal freedom in such a structured world becomes a personal fascism and can invite political fascism (as opposed to pure socialism or communism).

The only good antidote to this, in a world where some freedom of speech dissemination has been taken away, is to be more open to personal interaction to those one would have tried to avoid in the past.  “Better Angels” as an organization seems to be saying this, but it goes beyond just the association of people with different political outlooks;  it gets to real need.

Such personal action comports with social capital, and that usually starts with the family.  But the Left is insisting this does not go far enough, because it won’t recognize the cumulative effects that various intersectional groups experience as collective oppression by the power structure, or established system, against groups it has historically and systematically oppressed. But this insistence on the Left to put everything back on the system takes the personal and social aspect out of it, and defeats the Left’s real intention of establishing social solidarity, which is supposed to replace the freewheeling speech (often gratuitous and by implication, hateful or at least critical) today. 

Modern social media, to its credit, is trying to address this issue by directly encouraging members (especially within Facebook) to interact with others in ways that might have been unwelcome in the past.  For example, I prefer to keep most of my charitable giving private and out of social media, and try to avoid the appearance to taking sides or playing favorites, or even “joining up”.  But that is exactly what Facebook now is trying to get me to do, quite publicly.  There is a theory that mass activism campaigns through personal contact (email lists, phone calls, door-to-door, "Take Action" buttons even on narrow issues) have gotten a bad reputation (spam, robocalls) because so many people now have gotten out of having to do things this way, leaving everyone else weaker.  

Of course, then the end result, is that it needs to be more acceptable again to have other people’s backs and let them have yours if you take a chance and something goes wrong (skin in the game, again).
I personally like the idea of winning the arguments, rather than mindlessly pimping a group’s line to win converts.  But the rapidly devolving social climate, away from individual expression, may well force me to accept a lot of social connections and barrier shedding just, as in John Travolta’s 1983 movie, to stay alive.


Bill Boushka said...

It's well also to note that Ocasio-Cortez banned the press from her townhall in New York recently. It's unclear whether she would have barred independent bloggers who were not constituents. Probably so. There is a lot of talk that one reason was to protect undocumented people attending from being photographed.

Bill Boushka said...

I am told this is a much longer and detailed video interview by Pool of Fischer

Bill Boushka said...

Watching the video above now. An idea mentioned is whether journalists at a demonstration who have press cards get out of being arrested. But a website platform could require that someone have a press card from an organization before writing about news at all. (See the paragraph mentioning "China" in the post.) That's an unintended conclusion one could draw from some of this video. "Dangerous", as Milo would say.