Saturday, August 10, 2019

Jeffrey Epstein's Apparent Suicide. Echidne Investigates.

And why shouldn't she investigate?  After all, most political social media is creating conspiracy theories about Epstein's death, without any more access to facts than I have, and they have much louder voices.

Here are the facts which can be verified.  Notice that it's the prison authorities who said that he killed himself:

Jeffrey Epstein, the financier who was long dogged by accusations of sexual abuse of girls and who was able to cultivate a stream of high-profile friends despite his lurid lifestyle, killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell, officials said on Saturday.
Mr. Epstein hanged himself, the officials said. He was found at roughly 6:30 a.m. Saturday at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, the federal Bureau of Prisons said in a statement.

His death provides immediate space for various conspiracy theories because of its timing: 

It was only yesterday that the documents from a lawsuit against Ghislane Maxwell, Epstein's one-time girlfriend (of the adult type) were ordered unsealed.
And so it was only yesterday we learned which famous and powerful men Virginia Giuffre, the plaintiff in that case, named as the alleged "customers" of Epstein's and Maxwell's sexual abuse shop. 

The proximity in time between these two events and the order in which they happened  suggests that Epstein's death should be very carefully investigated, and so should the fact that Epstein was put on suicide watch after an earlier alleged suicide attempt but was supposedly taken off it in late July:

Mr. Epstein had been on suicide watch after he was found injured on July 23 and received a daily psychiatric evaluation, according to a person familiar with his detention. He was removed from suicide watch on July 29 and returned to the special housing unit, a segregated area of the prison with extra security, this person said.
The authorities did not immediately explain why he was taken off suicide watch. The F.B.I. said it was investigating, and Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement that a special inquiry would be opened into what had happened.
After that pompous title of this post, I have to admit that my investigation is not of the intrepid Nancy Drew type.  Rather, it consists of reading various conspiracy theories in the political social media.  My favorite is probably the suggestion that Hillary Clinton offed Epstein...

Other conspiracy theorists speculate that Epstein was offed to frighten Maxwell so that she will keep her mouth shut.  Or even that he was offed to frighten any women who might come forward from doing so.  Many milder conspiracy theories abound, including the chance that Epstein is not dead at all but was spirited away for a new face and a new life.

Whatever one thinks of those stories or of Epstein's manner of death it's pretty clear that a thorough investigation of what exactly happened is absolutely necessary.  That should cover the reasons why someone in Epstein's situation was taken off suicide watch, who made that decision, whom Epstein's speedy death would benefit and how.*


* Other than himself.  One conspiracy theory proposes that Epstein bribed someone in the prison system so that he could kill himself. 

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Short Posts 8/7/19. Toni Morrison, RIP, On Paul Krugman's Column And What Online Chatter Matters

1.  Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate in literature, died on Monday at the age of 88.  Her books are an indispensable part of the American literary canon and should be read by everyone.

But Morrison's most intended audience wasn't "everyone" or "white American majority."  She wrote about the experiences of black people and, in particular, about the experiences of black women, and she wrote to them.  To her people.

By doing that she made the American literary canon greater and more truthful.

2.  Paul Krugman has published a very strongly worded opinion piece on the Republican Party and its relationship to right-wing domestic white terrorism.

I might not frame my own opinions quite so strongly, but I do agree with Krugman on the essential dilemma of the Republican Party.  Quoting my earlier self:*

The way I understand the inner workings of the Republican Party is that it is the party of the owners (the capitalists, if you like), and ultimately what its policies will do is transfer more power to those who already own a lot of financial power. 
Because a very unequal country in terms of income and wealth distributions cannot provide enough votes for the "party-of-the-owners," the Republicans in those inside circles had to invent a different carrot (or whip) to get votes from those whose actual interests are not served by the Republican economic policies. 

That carrot was the search for hind-brain motives:  

The fear of The Other, the anger at those who are perceived as now getting a larger share of the crumbs falling off the dining tables of the rich:  The minorities, the uppity women, the immigrants and migrants. 

To that was added the promise of the opium of the people:  Right-wing, patriarchal religious beliefs would be supported so that the crumbs would fall to the right people, and so that the rest of the status pyramids would stay the same as they have always been.
 By going that route the Republican politicians are now riding a tiger (those hind-brain emotions they encouraged, and it's hard to get off its back without being eaten.   So the riders must hang on even when the tiger goes berserk.

3.   It's possible that I have overdosed on Twitter, or that I'm a prim and curmudgeony goddess** who also believes herself to be holier than thou, but I still think that the Neil deGrasse Tyson tweet debacle should not have been written up in places like the New York Times

So the guy said something stupid and callous at the wrong time.  There are millions of other stupid and callous tweets taking place right now, and in most cases they are best ignored, the way people used to ignore the street corner ranters and ravers.***

Our energy, attention and resources are limited, and we should focus them on what matters most in politics.


*  More on how the immigration crisis is used for that purpose in this post.

** Or one who suffers from serious burnout.  Vacation, here I come!

*** I don't mean to imply that Tyson is one of those people, just that we don't actually have to have a national debate about everything that someone says online.  

And yeah, I suffer from the "someone was wrong online" syndrome myself, and have to restrain myself from correcting false statistics and biased data.  But still.

Note that the earlier publicity deGrasse Tyson got when he was accused of sexual misconduct was proper.  This time, not so much. 

Monday, August 05, 2019

On Online Radicalization

The recent massacre in El Paso, Texas, carried out by a white supremacist,  turned the limelight on a hate site called 8chan.  That site is not alone among the hate sites, but it certainly is the nastiest.  Indeed, it has become the site where several recent terror attacks have been pre-announced:

In recent months, 8chan has become a go-to resource for violent extremists. At least three mass shootings this year — including the mosque killings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the synagogue shooting in Poway, Calif. — have been announced in advance on the site, often accompanied by racist writings that seem engineered to go viral on the internet.
Public pressure forced the service provider for 8chan, Cloudfare, to take the site down.  It won't stay down, of course. 

But at least we are finally talking about the many ways that radicalization happens online.  Large social media sites were able to get together and do something about the online presence of radical Islamist terror groups.  Now they should similarly address the online presence of white supremacist terror groups* which are also breeding grounds for radicalization.

Today's New York Times editorial notes that there has been less interest in doing that:

Technology companies, too, appear unwilling to treat white nationalist terror online the way they have dealt with the online spread of radical Islamic terror groups, such as the Islamic State. Companies like Facebook and Twitter took bold action to remove tens of millions of pieces of ISIS and Al Qaeda propaganda and accounts between 2014 and 2018. Similar standards have not been applied to white nationalists, perhaps because, as a 2018 report from researcher J.M. Berger, who specializes in online extremism, notes, “The task of crafting a response to the alt-right is considerably more complex and fraught with land mines, largely as a result of the movement’s inherently political nature and its proximity to political power.”
Proximity to political power...

But it's not just the fact that some in Trump's base are white (male) supremacists that makes the regulation of online hate sites so difficult.  Practical difficulties abound:

Law enforcement currently offers few answers as to how to contain these communities. The anonymous nature of the forum makes it difficult to track down the validity of threats, and trolls frequently muddy the waters by attempting to dupe authorities with false threats and disinformation. 
And laws about online activities lag far behind our current Wild West reality.   Do sites such as 8chan bear any legal responsibility for providing a venue where terrorists can plan their crimes and new terrorists are built?  Can they be sued by the families of the El Paso massacre victims, say?

I have no idea.  But clearly the current legal and law enforcement approaches to such hate sites and the damage they do are inadequate.  It's time to change that.

Finally, Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan stated recently that his initial goal with the site was to create a free speech utopia:

Mr. Brennan, who has claimed that he got the idea for 8chan while on psychedelic mushrooms, set out to create what he called a free speech alternative to 4chan, a better-known online message board. He was upset that 4chan had become too restrictive, and he envisioned a site where any legal speech would be welcome, no matter how toxic.

Mr. Brennan, who is no longer affiliated with the site now wants it shut down.

I wonder what he thought a free speech "utopia" site with pretty much no moderation would produce if not the fruits that we are now harvesting**.   


* Those sites are even more hateful than that, if possible:

The result is an evolving brand of social media-fueled bloodshed. Online communities like 4chan and 8chan have become hotbeds of white nationalist activity. Anonymous users flood the site’s “politics” board with racist, sexist and homophobic content designed to spread across the web. Users share old fascist fiction, Nazi propaganda and pseudoscientific texts about race and I.Q. and replacement theory, geared to radicalize their peers.

**  My impression is that any online political commenting site without moderation ends up not as a free marketplace of ideas but as something a little like the market for lemons, though not for quite the same reasons: 

Bad speech drives out better speech, trolls take over because they are allowed to and have more time and stamina, and extreme opinions, often toxic ones, end up dominating the debates.  Finally, only the bottom feeders remain, patrolling the area for new victims.