Overlooking Maple Street
by Aegis J. Frumento, Partner, Stern Tannenbaum & Bell
Our usual securities law concerns seem small this Easter and Passover week, so dense is it with other news. So I'll digress.
ISIS took responsibility for the massacre of hundreds at Catholic Easter services in Sri Lanka. Supposedly, they retaliated for last month's equally demented massacre of Muslim worshipers in a New Zealand mosque.
But wait! Didn't President Trump declare ISIS "eliminated," over and over again and as recently as March 22? https://thehill.com/policy/defense/435402-16-times-trump-declared-or-predicted-the-demise-of-isis . Would he lie to us?
OK, no need answer that. Not to change the subject, but the long-anticipated Mueller Report told us nothing we didn't already know about Donald Trump. The growing presidential library of books and articles about Trump, going back to the 1980s, has made it perfectly clear what most of us here in the City knew decades ago, that his character is a pastiche of varying shades of envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. He is as transparent as a thin glaze of ice, and as distorted too. Yes, of course he lied.
Mueller's description of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election is not really new either. But it's far more interesting because it's not as intuitively obvious, and for what it tells us about ourselves.
Writing in last week's New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert told how, when researcher Zeynep Tufekci watched tapes of Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign, "she noticed something odd. . . . YouTube began cuing up for her videos filled with racist diatribes and Holocaust denials." But when she created a different account to watch Clinton and Sanders videos, she was directed to equally demented left-wing conspiracy videos, "including some that argued that the U.S. government was responsible for the attacks of September 11th." YouTube's algorithms had decided that "the best way to hold viewers' attention was to push them toward more and more sensational material." See https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/22/whats-new-about-conspiracy-theories. The Russian election shenanigans appear to have exploited those very algorithms, simply by supplying some of the content of that material, on both extremes. Whether they supplied enough additional material to move any electoral needles is a good and open question, though I'm not sure it really matters.
We are instinctively drawn to train wrecks. That's what "news" is, after all. But in watching a train wreck, some of us feel an urge to pull the switch that causes one. That's when tragedies happen, and it only takes a little nudge. The Russians weren't specifically looking to elect Trump. They really just wanted to mess with our heads. Think of Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight: "Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos." See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iwf20t9J1k. The Russians are Jokers, agents of chaos.
And so is ISIS. And so are all the lunatics who seek to sow chaos through violence -- all the shooters and bombers of houses of worship, schools, theaters, concerts, nightclubs, cafes and office buildings.
It's easy to think that we are beset by them, but we really aren't. People like that have always existed at the fringes of society. Kolbert reported research into paranoid thinking and discovered that it runs pretty constant through recent history. Every generation thinks it's crazier than the last, but it isn't true. Richard Hofstadter wrote both Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics in 1963, the same year that the assassination of President Kennedy let loose conspiracists right and left. They too thought their time was more deranged than the past, but it wasn't. And ours is no nuttier than theirs.
But there is a difference.
Just a few days ago, a white supremacist was arrested for illegally detaining asylum seekers at the southern border. Take a good look at him. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/us/militia-border-new-mexico.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share. In another time and place, he would have been tolerated as a harmless crank. You might have called him the village idiot. The Donald had for decades been tolerated as Manhattan's village idiot. Who would ever take the village idiot seriously? The New York-based press didn't. That's one reason he won.
But the real reason is what Zeynep Tufekci stumbled upon when outrageous YouTube videos were foisted on her, trying to suck her down into the darkest rabbit holes. One of the first things Sri Lanka did after the massacre was to shut down social media. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/opinion/sri-lanka-facebook-bombings.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share. It knew what it was about. New Zealand's murderer made vivid GoPro videos of his massacre in process, and those went viral. If the murderers in Sri Lanka were looking for revenge, I'm sure those videos had their role. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/national/echoes-of-prior-bloodshed-seen-in-new-zealand-massacre/2019/03/15/6ac2be32-4741-11e9-8aab-95b8d80a1e4f_story.html.
What is different about today's cranks is how technology -- especially social media -- lets them find each other so easily. It wasn't all that long ago that Woody Allen could turn the idea of a village idiots' convention into a sight gag. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5ObycvN3DA. But today, Lenny Pozner, an IT consultant whose son, 6-year-old Noah, was killed at Sandy Hook, has to battle an international skein of internet trolls claiming he never even had a son, what he calls "a global network of village idiots." "They never would have been able to find each other before, but now it's a synergistic effect of the combination of all of them from all over the world. [T]hey can make a YouTube video in fifteen seconds."
The internet weaponizes speech, making it far more dangerous than it ever was before. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/02/opinion/the-expensive-education-of-mark-zuckerberg-and-silicon-valley.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share. It reminds me very much of the difference between an AK-47 and the muskets our founding fathers knew. No freedom is absolute. You are not free to shoot me, to enslave me, to steal from me. You are free to persuade me, but not to manipulate me. But how can I stop you, given the power technology has given you? We know that in the 1790s, speech meant a pamphlet, a newspaper, a diatribe on the village green or a plea in a town hall. Even the village idiot could safely have his say. Today, speech means tweets and posts and retweets and reposts, and the village idiots have networked. They stalk us like the living dead, like night walkers, trying to make us one of them. Some of the weaker-willed will inevitably succumb. The internet encourages the worst to do a lot more damage than they might otherwise.
One thing is clear: Russian trolls, ISIS bombers, the network of village idiots and even Trump's tweets all spread anarchy, some a little, some a lot. Forget the Mueller report and all the reporting about the Mueller report, and treat yourself to a Twilight Zone episode from 1960, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. When the lights turn off and on at random, the residents of Maple Street start accusing each other of being in league with alien invaders. Eventually they turn on each other violently, which is exactly what the alien invaders intend. It's worth watching, and if you can't spare the half-hour, there's a 7-minute abridged version below that will suffice.
There are no alien invaders here, neither Russians, nor ISIS, nor roaming hordes of village idiots, nor certainly those desperate asylum seekers on the southern border. The monsters are real, but still just us, and we still don't know how to control them. Or we're not willing to, and that may be the same thing.