Sunday, July 30, 2017

why we missed Trump's victory

As a fully frocked political scientist with some modest campaign experience, I watched last year's presidential contest with special attention to campaign organizations, spending, and themes and the resulting polling results. I knew that polls nowadays are failing to reach and get responses from over 90% of the people they try to contact, so I paid greater weight to aggregators.

I couldn't believe that Trump could win if he failed to run a traditional campaign of heavy media spending and strong organization, especially for getting out the vote [GOTV]. He didn't do either on a national scale, and even his swing-state efforts seemed modest -- though it was obviously enough in a few rust belt states that gave him electoral college victory.

Now I understand that I -- and we in the observer class -- missed where the Trump campaign was supercharged: on social media, often driven by bots. I don't follow or participate in social media, so I missed it, just as campaigns in earlier decades missed the new tactic surprise winners used.

There's new academic analysis of the role of the bots, as summarized here, with a link to the journal article, by Columbia Journalism Review:

Bots played a huge role in promoting the spread of misinformation and disinformation during and following the 2016 campaign season. A just-released study from a group of scholars at Indiana University in Bloomington, which analyzed 14 million Twitter messages, finds that bots were more likely than humans to be “super spreaders” of fake stories, playing a crucial, early role in making certain stories go viral. Bots spread the stories through tweets, retweets, replies, and mentions. Bots will repetitively add @realDonaldTrump to a tweet with a false claim, for instance, to propel false stories to surface more often.

While this is not a eureka moment in the battle against fake news, it is compelling evidence that so-called “bot armies” are a cornerstone of the misinformation strategy. The study’s findings also suggest a path forward for the fight against fake news. If bots are able to take advantage of an ecosystem that rewards their sheer force of numbers, then disabling overactive bots would be a way to slow the spread of such claims. Researchers, including those at Indiana, are developing more reliable ways to detect whether a particular account is a bot or not. The study I described above relies on a tool called a Bot-o-meter, which scores Twitter accounts based on how likely they are to belong to a human.

This story also comes after the recent controversy in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in which bot armies promoted smear campaigns against Qatar and Al Jazeera. As David Carroll pointed out: “[Bot armies are a] global problem deployed as info ops against media outlets.” provides a fascinating list of propaganda bot networks and hashtags involved.
Now we know where else to look for campaign information, but not what to do about it.

the marginalization of the State Department

Further evidence today on how Secretary of State Tillerson is succeeding in weakening,marginalizing, and ultimately destroying the State Department. See this article by Roger Cohen.

Tillerson is refusing the nominate people to key positions, including many major ambassadorships and 20 of 22 assistant secretary posts. He is outsourcing a planned reorganization of the department,which seems driven by org chart elegance and money savings rather than roles and missions. He has acquiesced in savage budget cuts and failed to take even simple steps to boost the morale of career professionals.

Here's an example:
In the Saudi-Qatar eruption last month, the extent of dysfunction was clear. Saudi Arabia, with clear support from Trump, orchestrated a blockade of Qatar, where the United States has its largest regional air base, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism. Never mind that such accusations coming from the Saudis are pretty rich. That was on June 5. Four days later, Tillerson appealed for reconciliation. The blockade was “impairing U.S. and other international business activities.” Barely an hour later, Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

Throughout this time, Tillerson never contacted Smith, who was then still the Qatar ambassador, she told me. By contrast, she spoke four times to Defense Secretary James Mattis during the first week of the embargo; that communication line, at least, was open. Finally, this month, Tillerson spent a few days in the region trying to broker a deal between Doha and Riyadh, to no avail.
So far, at least, Congress is resisting the deepest budget cuts, but unless Tillerson changes course, lawmakers will be funding a hollowed-out, aimless diplomatic instrument.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

who won the Iraq war?

It looks like Iran. A lengthy article in the New York Times shows how Iran has become dominant in Iraq. That's the legacy of our ill-considered war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The Times notes that Iran not only decides who has power in the Iraqi government but also is using its position to provide military support to pro-Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon.

It is not surprising that a Shiite-majority Iraq would have cordial relations with Shiite Iran, but Tehran's dominance makes it much harder to build a unified country where Sunnis and Kurds feel welcome and safe.

America's defeat has many causes, but the most valuable lesson we can learn is, Be Careful about going to war.

Monday, July 10, 2017

leadership abandoned

It's really discouraging to return to the news after a family vacation and see the further crumbling of America's position in the world -- in just a few weeks. Personally and professionally, I believe that U.S. leadership in world affairs in a good thing for us and for most others. The international institutions and norms we created after 1945 have been force multipliers for our security, our values,  and global prosperity.

That doesn't mean we have to lead everything, be policeman trying to solve every conflict, or insist on subservience to our policies. But we should still try to lead, to persuade, to shape a better future.

When an American president doesn't even try to lead other nations, doesn't listen to reasonable alternative points of view, embraces inconsistency as a virtue, he puts the rest of us at risk. That clearly was the result of the G20 summit. The other economic powers are lining up against us; they are working around our confused president. What has been and could still be a forum for international cooperation showed instead how much the U.S. has abandoned its former leadership role. America First has become America Alone.  Sad. Very sad.