The Social Media Silo Situation

The year is 2016. The place, Facebook. A 30-something man is scrolling through his newsfeed when he sees the inflammatory headline of a news article bashing the presidential candidate he supports. Angrily, the man glances up to see who posted the article, hesitates momentarily, and then “unfriends” the “friend” he has not seen since high school.

Is the man right to remove the offending presence? After all, the article was clearly biased, and discussing politics over social media never changes anyone’s mind, right?

.. The idea of social media echo chambers has garnered much attention lately. The concept of “confirmation bias” — the instinct to seek information that supports a current belief or conviction — has long been established in the world of science, and is something to be avoided whenever searching for truth. But in social media, this bias is propagated simply by reading, liking, and sharing content that acts to support those convictions we already hold, while avoiding content that challenges our beliefs. Essentially, we begin to isolate ourselves from those opposing opinions until we’re surrounded with people who agree with us.

.. “That’s a problem for Christians,” Goforth continues, “It’s like I want the simplistic kind of thing. Keep me out of the grays. But my view is, the grays are where the interesting things are, and it’s also where God can do things. When you are uncertain and when things are confusing you turn to God. So it’s an opportunity for Him to work in our lives.”

But it doesn’t stop there. In today’s age of data tracking, each like or click provides search engines and social media sites with information about the kinds of things we like and then works to provide us with more of the same, further insulating us from news or opinions we don’t want to see.

The theory is we become stuck in a feedback loop, liberated from the uncomfortable experience of confronting ideas or beliefs that oppose or challenge our own. And the theory is true, if only to an extent.

.. The researchers concluded that, “Unlike news, where there is solid evidence that people seek out ideologically consistent viewpoints, social media functions differently, perhaps driven by different motivations for use,” they wrote. “[Social media users] may come to learn that their friends don’t agree with them politically but recognize that disagreement isn’t a deal breaker, hence fostering some attenuation of dislike for people we disagree with.”

This recognition — that political views don’t have to make or break a relationship — is a great example of embracing “the grays,” that Goforth referred to. It requires inhabiting a space of tension, holding firmly to that view we profess, while also valuing the human being across from us enough to be drawn into a conversation, rather than walling ourselves off from the “opposition.”

If that mutual respect is demonstrated, social media can be used as a tool to foster community. Of course, if the subject of our ire continuously perpetuates a disregard for the value of others, perhaps engaging that individual over social media will prove fruitless, in which case the unfollow or unfriend options become reasonable.

However, in most instances, what we get out of social media is what we put in. Therefore, if used intentionally, it can prove to create opportunities to genuinely engage with others. Sending a heartfelt message, rather than a quippy reply to a challenging post, demonstrates a willingness to connect beyond a public fray. Yes, this requires more effort, but the payoff is real relationships in which God can move.

By turning away from what’s easiest and stepping into the gray areas, the unknown, where no one person has everything right, we allow God to work in our lives and mold us into the people He created us to be — people who are humble and open, and who acknowledge the inherent value of others.

The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State

many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.

.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)

As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.

.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.

.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.

What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.

The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”

The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.

When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”

By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.

Why Trump has spared Pelosi from his personal vitriol — so far

The president genuinely respects the incoming speaker, and needs her if he’s going to get anything done in the next two years. But the government shutdown is about to test his restraint.

When President Donald Trump took to Twitter last weekend to blame Democrats for the government shutdown, he notably bypassed his party’s favorite foil: Nancy Pelosi.

And when Fox News teed up a chance for the president to unload on Pelosi in a New Year’s Eve interview, noting that the Democratic leader was vacationing in Hawaii during the shutdown while Trump stayed in Washington, he didn’t take the bait.

His decision so far not to go after Pelosi personally, even as his top aides have blamed her for the shutdown, hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Capitol. Pelosi’s allies have viewed Trump’s restraint toward the incoming speaker as a sign that he’s looking beyond the shutdown in hopes of notching some bipartisan wins this year — on infrastructure, perhaps, or prescription drug pricing.

Of course, Trump’s tone toward Pelosi could change on a dime given his penchant for pummeling adversaries and the likelihood Pelosi will refuse his demand for billions in border wall funding. But the relative peace between the chief lightning rods of their respective parties, at least to this point, is pretty remarkable.

Trump’s allies told POLITICO his tack represents not some grand negotiating strategy but a sign of genuine regard for her.

“I think the president respects Nancy Pelosi and understands that she represents voters that would never vote for him but also that if she’s serious about getting things done, he’s willing to really negotiate in good faith with her,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump confidant on Capitol Hill. The president, he added, views her as a “worthy adversary.”

Added Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), “His base is not enough to get him reelected. The American people want to see him get something done. And he needs Nancy Pelosi to get things done.”

Though she, too, has avoided public name-calling, it’s clear Pelosi doesn’t feel the same admiration for Trump. After a recent meeting at the White House, Pelosi returned to the Hill and questioned his manhood before a room full of House Democrats. She likened negotiating with him to getting sprayed by a skunk, and expressed exasperation that he is even president.

Pelosi’s allies say she doesn’t trust him, pointing to

  • a tentative immigration compromise they reached in 2017 that she believes Trump backed out of. She’s noticed how
  • he’s blamed Republican congressional leaders when his base decries spending bills, and
  • upended their legislative plans with surprise tweets.

“Speaker Pelosi has a history of bipartisan accomplishments. … But the test for this president is figuring where he stands on issues from one day to the next,” said Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff.

Pelosi is also uncomfortable with Trump’s handling of facts — a big obstacle, in her mind, to cutting deals with him — and has occasionally called him out. During their first meeting after his inauguration, when Trump opened the gathering by bragging that he’d won more votes than Hillary Clinton, Pelosi was the only person in the room to correct him, noting that his statement was false and he’d lost the popular vote.

Since then, Pelosi has tried to correct Trump privately, her allies say. She doesn’t like fighting in public, they added, and it was one of the main reasons she tried, in vain, to end the sparring match over border wall funding that unfolded on TV live from the West Wing last month.

Sources close to Pelosi say she’s willing to work with Trump despite her party’s total rejection of him. Her confidants note that when Pelosi first became speaker in 2007, some Democrats were calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush over the invasion in Iraq. Pelosi ignored them and went on to strike major deals with Bush, including a bank bailout and stimulus package in response to the 2008 financial meltdown.

“They became friends,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Pelosi confidant. For the incoming speaker, “It’s always about: Can you get things done? There are always going to be different points of view. How do we overcome them to get to a conclusion?”

Pelosi allies say as long as Trump is willing to compromise on Democratic priorities, she’ll work with him, too. But with the shutdown dragging into Pelosi’s takeover on Jan. 3, there’s a serious question about whether the two can make any headway.

On New Year’s Day, Trump and Pelosi exchanged words on Twitter over the shutdown — relatively mild ones, especially by Trump’s standards — in a sign of the tense days and weeks ahead.

“I think the president respects her and wants to work with her … Their personalities would lend themselves to strike deals,” Short said. “But I don’t know if Democrats will allow it. … She’s going to have so many members who will object to any transaction or communication with the president, that it puts her in a tight spot.”

It’s just as unclear whether Trump is willing to risk the wrath of his base by compromising with Pelosi. Just as he did on immigration, promising a “bill of love” to protect Dreamers from deportation, Trump privately told Pelosi after their contentious televised negotiation session that he wants to make a deal with her. Even after news that she’d questioned his masculinity went viral, he called her that afternoon to reiterate: We can work together to avert a shutdown.

But that was more than three weeks ago. The two haven’t spoken since.

TRUMP FLIES TO IRAQ, TELL U.S. TROOPS ‘WE’RE RESPECTED AGAIN AS A NATION’

After a secret 11-hour journey aboard Air Force One, President Trump arrived in Iraq on the day after Christmas in a show of support for the U.S. troops stationed there. The president also took the opportunity to inform U.S. service personnel about his recent decision to pull American forces out of Syria.

Trump – who was accompanied on the trip by first lady Melania Trump — said the U.S. mission in Syria was to strip the Islamic State terror group (ISIS) of its military strongholds, not to be a nation builder. He said that’s a job that should be shouldered by other rich nations — reiterating his America First policies and an ideology that challenges America’s roles as global cop.

“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump told troops at Al Asad Air Base, west of Baghdad.

The president said the U.S. presence in Syria was never to be “open-ended,” and that Turkey has agreed to eliminate ISIS remnants. – Reported by Travis Fedschun and Frank Miles