Saturday, March 31, 2018

FACEBOOK, FAKE NEWS AND THE ELECTION OF DONALD J. TRUMP



I first joined Facebook a little less than three years ago.  Probably I don’t go on to visit there more than once per week.  The only reason I joined to begin with was because it was a requirement of the job I hold.  What I enjoy the most about Facebook is keeping connected with certain people.  Sometimes, people share nice photos, and occasionally someone shares a good joke.

The political discussion is probably its least attractive feature.  Mostly I ignore such discussions going.  While it’s hardly a place to change anyone’s mind about politics to begin with, that doesn’t seem to matter to certain individuals who want to make certain their political opinion is known.  Often people share a single link that somehow will convince us of the rightness of their opinions.  And occasionally someone offers a thoughtful opinion.  Probably the truest statement I have seen on Facebook pertaining to politics says something to the effect: “I’ve changed my mind on politics because of something someone said on Facebook says no one ever.”

Still, no one should take no offense simply because someone offers a differing political opinion.  That is, we should take no more offense than if some proud parent shares photos of the same child over and over proving their child is the most adorable in the world.

Mining personal data for marketing purposes

I’ve created marketing messages on Facebook, and I have some idea about the use of data to target specific audiences.  I understand the concerns of certain interests regarding keeping such information private.  Since most Facebook users had an understanding that there would be no sharing of personal data, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should be testifying before Congress.  But could Facebook really throw an election to Donald Trump or Barack Obama for that matter?  We have more significant problems than just social media if that is the case.

While the outcome of the election was a surprise to practically everyone, mining of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica on behalf of Donald Trump arguably was not all that effective.  Donald Trump received less popular votes than did his Democratic opponent.  What more likely won the election was new voters showing up at the polls to cast their votes for Trump.  Besides these voters usually sitting presidential elections out, these voters were far less likely to go onto Facebook than were those supporting Hillary Clinton.  These were voters from largely rural areas or manufacturing sectors.  Many were blue-collar workers with a high school degree at most.  That nobody paid attention to these individuals outside of the Trump camp was a major miscalculation.

The press and the 2016 election

Surprisingly few media outlets have mentioned how badly they bungled in the reporting of the 2016 election.  There are large numbers of conservative commentators who never imagined Trump would win who may be bigger critics of Trump than members of more liberal media outlooks.  But the press overall brought an incredible amount of attention to a candidate who no one gave a chance in 2014 or 2015.  And since they still cannot figure out how they could have been so badly wrong, they continue to be ineffective in critiquing the President of the United States.

Not too long ago the press played an extremely important role in ending the Vietnam War.  About the same time, they also brought down a president who just won an election in a landslide.  Partly this was because the reporters involved were real reporters rather than entertainers.  Also, because there were fewer media outlets, there wasn’t the fear of having to release a story before the facts were in because a rival might release the story first.

But that doesn’t excuse the ignorance of many reporters.  For example, there is a great willingness of many reporters to quote statistics without understanding what they quote may not be reliable.  Conservatives have used statistics in making claims that Planned Parenthood is primarily an abortion provider.  Liberals have used statistics in claiming infant mortality is higher in the U.S. than all other developed countries.  In both instances, statistics used were likely unreliable or required greater analysis.

Fake news and the role of the media

As a lawyer, I need to continually take continuing legal education classes to keep my license intact.  Recently, one such course concerned the 1st Amendment and free speech.  It featured amazingly qualified speakers, and the conclusion of the speakers overall was optimistic.  One was a state supreme court judge who mostly could not state her opinion because of cases that would come in front of her.  The others included an ACLU lawyer and a prominent member of the media – both who were much more forthright.

The media member stated members of the press make mistakes in reporting, but their reporting should never become the focus of the story.  He used the example of Ferguson, Missouri.  While some blamed the media for the rioting that occurred there, he stated the community was ripe for such rioting before any reporting occurred.  But without media attention to the mistrust of people in the community and law enforcement officers, no improvement of relations would ever happen.

The ACLU lawyer noted something more peculiar.  She said that we have a U.S. Supreme Court often called divided.  Yet she said that conservative and liberal justices alike are in very close agreement regarding the need for free speech, and in the handling of free speech issues.  That gives me hope that if the best and the brightest can sit down together and agree on something that important, the rest of us can agree on a few things to.

Donald Trump coined the phrase “fake news.”  I guess we would call fake news a sensational and false story that gets a lot of media attention.  Trump, of course, can be incredibly disingenuous when he touts any favorable news while calling anything negative “fake news” because it doesn’t fit his agenda.

Yet with the level of polarization going on in this country, just about everyone listens to what fits their agenda.  It’s not the first time we’ve had this level of polarization.  The elections of 1800 (Jefferson was in-league with the devil according to Adams’ supporters) and 1884 (the Democratic party was labeled the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion”) were every bit as contentious as the one in 2016.  We just have not had this level of contention for a very long time.

There is, of course, a remedy to fake news.  It’s called accurate reporting and intelligent analysis of the issues.  Also, intelligent people need to have an intelligent conversation with others with whom they may disagree.  If instead people go to Facebook first to reaffirm their political beliefs, people will continue listening to their own side and not have an intelligent discussion with anyone else. 


March 31, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018

Sunday, February 25, 2018

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962): Politics and Paranoia



Sometimes on late night television I’ll see the original version of The Manchurian Candidate.  A cold war satire based upon a novel by Richard Condon, the film remains strangely current with what is now going on in Washington, D.C.

The plot of The Manchurian Candidate concerns the brainwashing of a number of American soldiers taken prisoner during the Korean War.  When back on American soil, these veterans continue to remain susceptible to hypnotic suggestions by communist agents.  The most important agent is an American, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury).  She is the mother of one of the former prisoners, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), and the wife of Senator John Iselin (James Gregory).  Senator Iselin is under consideration to be a vice presidential candidate.

Senator Iselin’s political persona is like that of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  He labels any political rival a communist, and he stirs up his followers.  Senator Iselin has no in depth understanding of any political issue, and he lets his wife do all of his thinking.  Senator Iselin is a buffoon who many politicians do not take seriously.  But with his wife, they are an extremely dangerous combination.

Raymond is the problematic one.  He despises his mother and stepfather.  He’s in love with a girl named Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).  Senator Jordan also happens to be a chief critic of Senator Iselin and his wife.  Raymond also has a close acquaintance, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), also taken prisoner with Raymond in Korea.  Marco is the one who figures out what Mrs. Iselin is up to in controlling the various subjects – including her son, Raymond.  The brainwashing of Raymond leads to the killing of Senator Jordan and Jocelyn (even though Raymond is engaged to her).  Through brainwashing, Mrs. Iselin has instructed Raymond to assassinate the political enemies of Senator Iselin.   She also instructed him to kill the presidential candidate for which Senator Iselin is on the under ticket (this would make Senator Iselin the head of the ticket).  But because of Marco foiling the plans of Mrs. Iselin, instead of assassinating the presidential candidate Raymond shoots Senator Iselin and Mrs. Iselin at the convention.

Though The Manchurian Candidate is allowable for viewing on television, implications made during the film are more daring than what we get in most movies today.  In Condon’s novel, Mrs. Iselin brainwashes Raymond, her son, to have sex with her.  While the moviemakers did not or could not portray this in the film, there is a clear implication of Mrs. Iselin’s incestuous feelings for her son. 

The Manchurian Candidate is a film likely more popular today than it was when it first arrived in theatres.  And while cold war dramas may once have seemed a thing in the past, we’re again seeing such drama unfolding in Washington politics with the Russian probe.  The Manchurian Candidate also made way for other controversial satires such as Dr. Strangelove, released in 1964.  Yet while today’s critics admire the 126-minute film, not everyone gave it a positive review when it first arrived.  In his 1962 review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther praised the acting of Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey while at the same time saying The Manchurian Candidate “has so little to put across.”  I’d be curious if Crowther ever changed his mind regarding the film.

For any critic to be fair to a movie such as this, they need to understand that no good satire will receive universal accolades when first appearing.  A well-done satire will hurt some feelings.  The satire in films may also be easy for critics to miss who insist on taking the films literally. 

Concerning The Manchurian Candidate, neither writer Richard Condon nor director John Frankenheimer believed that the nation was in immediate danger because of brainwashing by communist agents.  The target of the satire was American citizens and politicians.  And the implication was that the McCarthyite antics of Senator Iselin and his wife were about as welcome as living under a communist dictatorship.  Just as defenders of Joseph McCarthy did and may still label him a true patriot, so would many American citizens label the two characters in this film.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of “true patriots” just like them still around.  If it’s not communism they claim to attack, it’s something else.

Note: When remade in 2004 with the Gulf War as a backdrop instead of the Korean War, the new version of The Manchurian Candidate received some good reviews but still received negative comparisons to the original film.  I guess the same would likely be true of any remake.  Since I have not seen the remake, I will withhold judgment.

 

 © Robert S. Miller 2018