The Trump administration will unveil a fiscal year 2018 budget today that includes $1.7 trillion in cuts to major social programs. The plan marks a new stage in a bipartisan social counterrevolution aimed at eviscerating what remains of programs to fight poverty and hunger and provide health care for millions of workers.
The unveiling of the budget underscores the reactionary character of the Democrats’ response to a gangster government headed by a fascistic-minded billionaire and composed of Wall Street bankers, far-right ideologues and generals. The Democratic Party has chosen to base its opposition to Trump not on his assault on working and poor people, his attacks on democratic rights, or his reckless militarism, but on his supposed “softness” toward Russia.
In the political warfare in Washington, the Democrats are aligned with those sections of the intelligence apparatus and the “deep state” that are determined to compel Trump to abandon any notion of easing relations, and instead continue the Obama administration’s policy of escalating confrontation with Russia. As the Democrats and the so-called “liberal” media pursue their anti-Russia campaign, the Trump administration continues to advance its brutal domestic agenda.
Trump’s budget is the opening shot in a stage-managed tussle between the two big business parties over social cuts that will end with the most massive attack on core social programs in US history.
The budget includes a cut of $800 billion over a decade in Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people jointly administered by the federal government and the states. More than 74 million Americans, or one in five, are currently enrolled in Medicaid, including pregnant women, children and seniors with disabilities.
Like the American Health Care Act (AHCA) passed earlier this month by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Trump’s budget plan would put an end to Medicaid as a guaranteed benefit based on need, replacing it with per capita funding or block grants to the states.
The AHCA would also end the expansion of Medicaid benefits under Obamacare and allow states to impose work requirements for beneficiaries. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that an earlier version of the Republican plan would result in 10 million people being stripped of Medicaid benefits.
Trump’s budget would also cut $193 billion over a decade from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, a 25 percent reduction to be achieved in part by limiting eligibility and imposing work requirements.
Welfare benefits, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, would be cut by $21 billion. Spending on the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which benefit mainly low- and middle-income families, would be reduced by $40 billion.
The budget reportedly includes changes in funding for Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program, which provides cash benefits to the poor and disabled.
While gutting social programs, Trump proposes to sharply reduce taxes for the wealthy. In addition to slashing income tax rates for the rich, he is proposing to dramatically cut estate, capital gains and business tax rates. At the same time, he is demanding a huge increase in military spending.
While Democrats will make rhetorical criticisms of the Trump budget, the fact is that the administration is escalating a decades-long assault on the working class overseen by both big business parties.
The outcome can be seen in the reality of social life in America:
More than 13 percent—some 43.1 million Americans—were living in poverty in 2015. Of these, 19.4 million were living in extreme poverty, which means their family’s cash income was less than half of the poverty line, or about $10,000 a year for a family of four. The poverty rate for children under 18 was 19.7 percent.
These are the official poverty rates, based on absurdly low income baselines. In reality, at least half of the population is living in or on the edge of poverty. These are precisely the people targeted by Trump’s proposed cuts to Medicaid, welfare and food stamps.
Almost one in eight US households, 15.8 million, were food insecure in 2015, meaning they had difficulty providing enough food for all their members. Five percent of households had very low food security, meaning the food intake of household members was cut. Three million households were unable to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.
Lack of health care
In 2016 under Obamacare, 28.6 million people of all ages, or about 9 percent of the US population, remained uninsured. Many of those insured under plans purchased from private insurers on the Obamacare exchanges were unable to use their insurance because of prohibitively high deductibles and co-pays. Many who gained insurance under Obamacare did so as a result of the expansion of Medicaid. Trump plans to reverse this, throwing millions of people back into the ranks of the uninsured.
A bipartisan assault
In the wake of Trump’s budget proposal, the Democrats have responded with their standard empty rhetoric. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer—one of Congress’ biggest recipients of Wall Street campaign money—decried Trump’s “hard-right policies that benefit the ultra-wealthy at the expense of the middle-class.” Just three weeks ago, Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were hailing the passage of a bipartisan fiscal 2017 budget that cut food stamps by $2.4 billion, slashed funding for education and the environment, and added billions more for the military and border control.
Obamacare paved the way for the present assault on Medicaid and the coming attacks on Medicare and Social Security by further subordinating health care to the profit demands of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and imposing higher costs for reduced benefits on millions of workers.
Nothing less than a mass movement of the working class will prevent the destruction of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, public education and every other social gain won by the working class. But this movement must be completely independent of the Democratic Party, the historic graveyard of social protest in America. That includes left-talking demagogues like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
It is not a matter of appealing to or seeking to pressure the Democrats or any other section of the political establishment. They are all in the pocket of Wall Street.
The working class needs its own program to secure its basic social rights—a decent-paying job, education, health care, a secure retirement. These rights are not compatible with a capitalist system that is lurching inexorably toward world war and dictatorship.
Workers and youth must intervene in this crisis with a socialist and revolutionary program geared to the needs of the vast majority, not the interests of an obscenely rich and corrupt financial oligarchy.
The deep state’s decision in ancient Rome—dominated by a bloated military and a corrupt oligarchy, much like the United States of 2017—to strangle the vain and idiotic Emperor Commodus in his bath in the year 192 did not halt the growing chaos and precipitous decline of the Roman Empire.
Commodus, like a number of other late Roman emperors, and like President Trump, was incompetent and consumed by his own vanity. He commissioned innumerable statues of himself as Hercules and had little interest in governance. He used his position as head of state to make himself the star of his own ongoing public show. He fought victoriously as a gladiator in the arena in fixed bouts. Power for Commodus, as it is for Trump, was primarily about catering to his bottomless narcissism, hedonism and lust for wealth. He sold public offices so the ancient equivalents of Betsy DeVos and Steve Mnuchin could orchestrate a vast kleptocracy.
Commodus was replaced by the reformer Pertinax, the Bernie Sanders of his day, who attempted in vain to curb the power of the Praetorian Guards, the ancient version of the military-industrial complex. This effort saw the Praetorian Guards assassinate Pertinax after he was in power only three months. The Guards then auctioned off the office of emperor to the highest bidder. The next emperor, Didius Julianus, lasted 66 days. There would be five emperors in A.D. 193, the year after the assassination of Commodus. Trump and our decaying empire have ominous historical precedents. If the deep state replaces Trump, whose ineptitude and imbecility are embarrassing to the empire, that action will not restore our democracy any more than replacing Commodus restored democracy in Rome. Our republic is dead.
Societies that once were open and had democratic traditions are easy prey for the enemies of democracy. These demagogues pay deference to the patriotic ideals, rituals, practices and forms of the old democratic political system while dismantling it. When the Roman Emperor Augustus—he referred to himself as the “first citizen”—neutered the republic, he was careful to maintain the form of the old republic. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did the same when they seized and crushed the autonomous soviets. Even the Nazis and the Stalinists insisted they ruled democratic states. Thomas Paine wrote that despotic government is a fungus that grows out of a corrupt civil society. This is what happened to these older democracies. It is what happened to us.
Our constitutional rights—due process, habeas corpus, privacy, a fair trial, freedom from exploitation, fair elections and dissent—have been taken from us by judicial fiat. These rights exist only in name. The vast disconnect between the purported values of the state and reality renders political discourse absurd.
Corporations, cannibalizing the federal budget, legally empower themselves to exploit and pillage. It is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries can hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Those burdened by student loans can never wipe out the debt by declaring bankruptcy. In many states, those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter can be charged with a criminal offense. Corporations legally carry out tax boycotts. Companies have orchestrated free trade deals that destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Labor unions and government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water and food and from usurious creditors and lenders have been defanged. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as a right to petition the government or a form of free speech. Much of the press, owned by large corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold to corporations that hike rates and deny services to the poor. The educational system is being slowly privatized and turned into a species of vocational training.Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment—masked by falsified statistics—have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. Culture and the arts have been replaced by sexual commodification, banal entertainment and graphic depictions of violence. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, arrests, food shortages and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The desperate flee into an underground economy dominated by drugs, crime and human trafficking. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed civilians. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million citizens, only a tiny percentage of whom had a trial. One million prisoners work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves.
The amendments of the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts and financial, judicial and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks.
The state tortures, not only in black sites such as those at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at Guantanamo Bay, but also in supermax ADX [administrative maximum] facilities such as the one at Florence, Colo., where inmates suffer psychological breakdowns from prolonged solitary confinement. Prisoners, although they are citizens, endure around-the-clock electronic monitoring and 23-hour-a-day lockdowns. They undergo extreme sensory deprivation. They endure beatings. They must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. They can write only one letter a week to one relative and cannot use more than three pieces of paper. They often have no access to fresh air and take their one hour of daily recreation in a huge cage that resembles a treadmill for hamsters.
The state uses “special administrative measures,” known as SAMs, to strip prisoners of their judicial rights. SAMs restrict prisoners’ communication with the outside world. They end calls, letters and visits with anyone except attorneys and sharply limit contact with family members. Prisoners under SAMs are not permitted to see most of the evidence against them because of a legal provision called the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA. CIPA, begun under the Reagan administration, allows evidence in a trial to be classified and withheld from those being prosecuted. You can be tried and convicted, like Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” without ever seeing the evidence used to find you guilty. Under SAMs, it is against the law for those who have contact with an inmate—including attorneys—to speak about his or her physical and psychological conditions.
And when prisoners are released, they have lost the right to vote and receive public assistance and are burdened with fines that, if unpaid, will put them back behind bars. They are subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. They spend the rest of their lives marginalized as members of a vast criminal caste.
The executive branch of government has empowered itself to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the Army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which ended a prohibition on the military acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize U.S. citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists. This is called “extraordinary rendition.” Those taken into custody by the military can be denied due process and habeas corpus rights and held indefinitely in military facilities. Activists and dissidents, whose rights were once protected under the First Amendment, can face indefinite incarceration.
Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs and associations are criminalized. The state assumed the power to detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last.
The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere at any time, whose conversations, messages, meetings, proclivities and habits are recorded, stored and analyzed, who is powerless in the face of corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
On March 2, a disturbing report hit the desks of U.S. counterintelligence officials in Washington. For months, American spy hunters had scrambled to uncover details of Russia’s influence operation against the 2016 presidential election. In offices in both D.C. and suburban Virginia, they had created massive wall charts to track the different players in Russia’s multipronged scheme. But the report in early March was something new.
It described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer–and Twitter account.
As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States? At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.
For many Americans, Russian hacking remains a story about the 2016 election. But there is another story taking shape. Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology.
Current and former officials at the FBI, at the CIA and in Congress now believe the 2016 Russian operation was just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war against global democracy. And they’ve become more vocal about their concern. “If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress on May 8.
If that sounds alarming, it helps to understand the battlescape of this new information war. As they tweet and like and upvote their way through social media, Americans generate a vast trove of data on what they think and how they respond to ideas and arguments–literally thousands of expressions of belief every second on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Google. All of those digitized convictions are collected and stored, and much of that data is available commercially to anyone with sufficient computing power to take advantage of it.
That’s where the algorithms come in. American researchers have found they can use mathematical formulas to segment huge populations into thousands of subgroups according to defining characteristics like religion and political beliefs or taste in TV shows and music. Other algorithms can determine those groups’ hot-button issues and identify “followers” among them, pinpointing those most susceptible to suggestion. Propagandists can then manually craft messages to influence them, deploying covert provocateurs, either humans or automated computer programs known as bots, in hopes of altering their behavior.
That is what Moscow is doing, more than a dozen senior intelligence officials and others investigating Russia’s influence operations tell TIME. The Russians “target you and see what you like, what you click on, and see if you’re sympathetic or not sympathetic,” says a senior intelligence official. Whether and how much they have actually been able to change Americans’ behavior is hard to say. But as they have investigated the Russian 2016 operation, intelligence and other officials have found that Moscow has developed sophisticated tactics.
In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U.S. social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence.
As Russia expands its cyberpropaganda efforts, the U.S. and its allies are only just beginning to figure out how to fight back. One problem: the fear of Russian influence operations can be more damaging than the operations themselves. Eager to appear more powerful than they are, the Russians would consider it a success if you questioned the truth of your news sources, knowing that Moscow might be lurking in your Facebook or Twitter feed. But figuring out if they are is hard. Uncovering “signals that indicate a particular handle is a state-sponsored account is really, really difficult,” says Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which tackles global security challenges.
Like many a good spy tale, the story of how the U.S. learned its democracy could be hacked started with loose lips. In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as Secretary of State. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election.
What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U.S. spies were listening. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. But if the officer’s boast seems like a red flag now, at the time U.S. officials didn’t know what to make of it. “We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” says the senior intelligence official. Investigators now realize that the officer’s boast was the first indication U.S. spies had from their sources that Russia wasn’t just hacking email accounts to collect intelligence but was also considering interfering in the vote. Like much of America, many in the U.S. government hadn’t imagined the kind of influence operation that Russia was preparing to unleash on the 2016 election. Fewer still realized it had been five years in the making.
In 2011, protests in more than 70 cities across Russia had threatened Putin’s control of the Kremlin. The uprising was organized on social media by a popular blogger named Alexei Navalny, who used his blog as well as Twitter and Facebook to get crowds in the streets. Putin’s forces broke out their own social media technique to strike back. When bloggers tried to organize nationwide protests on Twitter using #Triumfalnaya, pro-Kremlin botnets bombarded the hashtag with anti-protester messages and nonsense tweets, making it impossible for Putin’s opponents to coalesce.
Putin publicly accused then Secretary of State Clinton of running a massive influence operation against his country, saying she had sent “a signal” to protesters and that the State Department had actively worked to fuel the protests. The State Department said it had just funded pro-democracy organizations. Former officials say any such operations–in Russia or elsewhere–would require a special intelligence finding by the President and that Barack Obama was not likely to have issued one.
After his re-election the following year, Putin dispatched his newly installed head of military intelligence, Igor Sergun, to begin repurposing cyberweapons previously used for psychological operations in war zones for use in electioneering. Russian intelligence agencies funded “troll farms,” botnet spamming operations and fake news outlets as part of an expanding focus on psychological operations in cyberspace.
It turns out Putin had outside help. One particularly talented Russian programmer who had worked with social media researchers in the U.S. for 10 years had returned to Moscow and brought with him a trove of algorithms that could be used in influence operations. He was promptly hired by those working for Russian intelligence services, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “The engineer who built them the algorithms is U.S.-trained,” says the senior intelligence official.
Soon, Putin was aiming his new weapons at the U.S. Following Moscow’s April 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. considered sanctions that would block the export of drilling and fracking technologies to Russia, putting out of reach some $8.2 trillion in oil reserves that could not be tapped without U.S. technology. As they watched Moscow’s intelligence operations in the U.S., American spy hunters saw Russian agents applying their new social media tactics on key aides to members of Congress. Moscow’s agents broadcast material on social media and watched how targets responded in an attempt to find those who might support their cause, the senior intelligence official tells TIME. “The Russians started using it on the Hill with staffers,” the official says, “to see who is more susceptible to continue this program [and] to see who would be more favorable to what they want to do.”
On Aug. 7, 2016, the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli declared that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s. That story went viral in late August, then took on a life of its own after Clinton fainted from pneumonia and dehydration at a Sept. 11 event in New York City. Elsewhere people invented stories saying Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and Clinton had murdered a DNC staffer. Just before Election Day, a story took off alleging that Clinton and her aides ran a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor.
Congressional investigators are looking at how Russia helped stories like these spread to specific audiences. Counterintelligence officials, meanwhile, have picked up evidence that Russia tried to target particular influencers during the election season who they reasoned would help spread the damaging stories. These officials have seen evidence of Russia using its algorithmic techniques to target the social media accounts of particular reporters, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “It’s not necessarily the journal or the newspaper or the TV show,” says the senior intelligence official. “It’s the specific reporter that they find who might be a little bit slanted toward believing things, and they’ll hit him” with a flood of fake news stories.
Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official. (A Facebook official says the company has no evidence of that occurring.) The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, has said he is looking into why, for example, four of the top five Google search results the day the U.S. released a report on the 2016 operation were links to Russia’s TV propaganda arm, RT. (Google says it saw no meddling in this case.) Researchers at the University of Southern California, meanwhile, found that nearly 20% of political tweets in 2016 between Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 were generated by bots of unknown origin; investigators are trying to figure out how many were Russian.
As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon.
The congressional investigators are looking at ties between those companies and right-wing web personalities based in Eastern Europe who the U.S. believes are Russian fronts, a source familiar with the investigations tells TIME. “Nobody can prove it yet,” the source says. In March, McClatchy newspapers reported that FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign.
There are plenty of people who are skeptical of such a conspiracy, if one existed. Cambridge Analytica touts its ability to use algorithms to microtarget voters, but veteran political operatives have found them ineffective political influencers. Ted Cruz first used their methods during the primary, and his staff ended up concluding they had wasted their money. Mercer, Bannon, Breitbart News and the White House did not answer questions about the congressional probes. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica says the company has no ties to Russia or individuals acting as fronts for Moscow and that it is unaware of the probe.
Democratic operatives searching for explanations for Clinton’s loss after the election investigated social media trends in the three states that tipped the vote for Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In each they found what they believe is evidence that key swing voters were being drawn to fake news stories and anti-Clinton stories online. Google searches for the fake pedophilia story circulating under the hashtag #pizzagate, for example, were disproportionately higher in swing districts and not in districts likely to vote for Trump.
The Democratic operatives created a package of background materials on what they had found, suggesting the search behavior might indicate that someone had successfully altered the behavior in key voting districts in key states. They circulated it to fellow party members who are up for a vote in 2018.
Even as investigators try to piece together what happened in 2016, they are worrying about what comes next. Russia claims to be able to alter events using cyberpropaganda and is doing what it can to tout its power. In February 2016, a Putin adviser named Andrey Krutskikh compared Russia’s information-warfare strategies to the Soviet Union’s obtaining a nuclear weapon in the 1940s, David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported. “We are at the verge of having something in the information arena which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals,” Krutskikh said.
But if Russia is clearly moving forward, it’s less clear how active the U.S. has been. Documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and published by the Intercept suggested that the British were pursuing social media propaganda and had shared their tactics with the U.S. Chris Inglis, the former No. 2 at the National Security Agency, says the U.S. has not pursued this capability. “The Russians are 10 years ahead of us in being willing to make use of” social media to influence public opinion, he says.
There are signs that the U.S. may be playing in this field, however. From 2010 to 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development established and ran a “Cuban Twitter” network designed to undermine communist control on the island. At the same time, according to the Associated Press, which discovered the program, the U.S. government hired a contractor to profile Cuban cell phone users, categorizing them as “pro-revolution,” “apolitical” or “antirevolutionary.”
Much of what is publicly known about the mechanics and techniques of social media propaganda comes from a program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that the Rand researcher, Waltzman, ran to study how propagandists might manipulate social media in the future. In the Cold War, operatives might distribute disinformation-laden newspapers to targeted political groups or insinuate an agent provocateur into a group of influential intellectuals. By harnessing computing power to segment and target literally millions of people in real time online, Waltzman concluded, you could potentially change behavior “on the scale of democratic governments.”
In the U.S., public scrutiny of such programs is usually enough to shut them down. In 2014, news articles appeared about the DARPA program and the “Cuban Twitter” project. It was only a year after Snowden had revealed widespread monitoring programs by the government. The DARPA program, already under a cloud, was allowed to expire quietly when its funding ran out in 2015.
In the wake of Russia’s 2016 election hack, the question is how to research social media propaganda without violating civil liberties. The need is all the more urgent because the technology continues to advance. While today humans are still required to tailor and distribute messages to specially targeted “susceptibles,” in the future crafting and transmitting emotionally powerful messages will be automated.
The U.S. government is constrained in what kind of research it can fund by various laws protecting citizens from domestic propaganda, government electioneering and intrusions on their privacy. Waltzman has started a group called Information Professionals Association with several former information operations officers from the U.S. military to develop defenses against social media influence operations.
Social media companies are beginning to realize that they need to take action. Facebook issued a report in April 2017 acknowledging that much disinformation had been spread on its pages and saying it had expanded its security. Google says it has seen no evidence of Russian manipulation of its search results but has updated its algorithms just in case. Twitter claims it has diminished cyberpropaganda by tweaking its algorithms to block cleverly designed bots. “Our algorithms currently work to detect when Twitter accounts are attempting to manipulate Twitter’s Trends through inorganic activity, and then automatically adjust,” the company said in a statement.
In the meantime, America’s best option to protect upcoming votes may be to make it harder for Russia and other bad actors to hide their election-related information operations. When it comes to defeating Russian influence operations, the answer is “transparency, transparency, transparency,” says Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He has written legislation that would curb the massive, anonymous campaign contributions known as dark money and the widespread use of shell corporations that he says make Russian cyberpropaganda harder to trace and expose.
But much damage has already been done. “The ultimate impact of [the 2016 Russian operation] is we’re never going to look at another election without wondering, you know, Is this happening, can we see it happening?” says Jigsaw’s Jared Cohen. By raising doubts about the validity of the 2016 vote and the vulnerability of future elections, Russia has achieved its most important objective: undermining the credibility of American democracy.
For now, investigators have added the names of specific trolls and botnets to their wall charts in the offices of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. They say the best way to compete with the Russian model is by having a better message. “It requires critical thinkers and people who have a more powerful vision” than the cynical Russian view, says former NSA deputy Inglis. And what message is powerful enough to take on the firehose of falsehoods that Russia is deploying in targeted, effective ways across a range of new media? One good place to start: telling the truth.
–With reporting by PRATHEEK REBALA/WASHINGTON
Correction: The original version of this story misstated Jared Cohen’s title. He is CEO, not president.
The survey, published on Friday, concluded that Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter are also harmful. Among the five only YouTube was judged to have a positive impact.
The four platforms have a negative effect because they can exacerbate children’s and young people’s body image worries, and worsen bullying, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness, the participants said.
The findings follow growing concern among politicians, health bodies, doctors, charities and parents about young people suffering harm as a result of sexting, cyberbullying and social media reinforcing feelings of self-loathing and even the risk of them committing suicide.
“It’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing. Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears that they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” said Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, which undertook the survey with the Young Health Movement.
She demanded tough measures “to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young people’s mental health and wellbeing”. Social media firms should bring in a pop-up image to warn young people that they have been using it a lot, while Instagram and similar platforms should alert users when photographs of people have been digitally manipulated, Cramer said.
The 1,479 young people surveyed were asked to rate the impact of the five forms of social media on 14 different criteria of health and wellbeing, including their effect on sleep, anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-identity, bullying, body image and the fear of missing out.
Instagram emerged with the most negative score. It rated badly for seven of the 14 measures, particularly its impact on sleep, body image and fear of missing out – and also for bullying and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. However, young people cited its upsides too, including self-expression, self-identity and emotional support.
YouTube scored very badly for its impact on sleep but positively in nine of the 14 categories, notably awareness and understanding of other people’s health experience, self-expression, loneliness, depression and emotional support.
However, the leader of the UK’s psychiatrists said the findings were too simplistic and unfairly blamed social media for the complex reasons why the mental health of so many young people is suffering.
Prof Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives.. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media – good and bad – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.”
Tom Madders, its director of campaigns and communications, said: “Prompting young people about heavy usage and signposting to support they may need, on a platform that they identify with, could help many young people.”
However, he also urged caution in how content accessed by young people on social media is perceived. “It’s also important to recognise that simply ‘protecting’ young people from particular content types can never be the whole solution. We need to support young people so they understand the risks of how they behave online, and are empowered to make sense of and know how to respond to harmful content that slips through filters.”
Parents and mental health experts fear that platforms such as Instagram can make young users feel worried and inadequate by facilitating hostile comments about their appearance or reminding them that they have not been invited to, for example, a party many of their peers are attending.
May, who has made children’s mental health one of her priorities, highlighted social media’s damaging effects in her “shared society” speech in January, saying: “We know that the use of social media brings additional concerns and challenges. In 2014, just over one in 10 young people said that they had experienced cyberbullying by phone or over the internet.”
In February, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, warned social media and technology firms that they could face sanctions, including through legislation, unless they did more to tackle sexting, cyberbullying and the trolling of young users.
Recently, as I dined at my favorite café, awaiting a return text from my speaking agent, it occurred to me that America may have been a mistake. It also occurred to me that America may be a lie, or an alternate universe, or the nightmare of a sleeping rock giant who lives beneath an enormous snowcapped mountain. What if all of it — the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the plot to steal them, as well the Civil Rights Movement, and Brooklyn in the Aughts — had been just a delusion, a fever dream, a hallucination brought on by overbrunching?
Imagine, then, if none of it had actually happened. The Civil War, Reconstruction, Prohibition, Adam Gopnik moving to Paris? All lies. Imagine if Lyndon B. Johnson had never been born or if Woodrow Wilson were reincarnated as Fiona the Baby Hippo? Suddenly, the America that you’d thought about no longer would be the America that you’d never known. What if our history were an intestinal sheath, and we were the sausage?
When I was a child, the notion of a civic society, born from a social compact written by men wearing wigs, girded our intellects and our loins. But now our loins have begun to soften somewhat. Perhaps that’s because of the gig economy, or incipient fascism, or both. Plus we can always blame millennials, and we’d be right. In the meantime, a slow awareness has dawned slowly. We’ve begun to realize that another reality might be better. Fortunately, other realities are opening up every day.
Our universities, which for centuries have perpetuated the false idea that history moves linearly, are beginning to recognize that we exist in just one of an infinite number of possible Americas in an infinite number of timelines. Look at the courses currently being offered. Yale is teaching “Beyond Utopia: Ideal Americas in the Endless Multiverse.” At Columbia, juniors can take “The Land Bridge to Russia and How it Made Vladivostok the Capital of the United States.” At The University of New Mexico, students are invited to imagine a North America that had never been discovered by European settlers, and then are invited to visit that America through an unstable dimensional portal that recently opened up near the Organ Mountains. No one has emerged from that course unchanged, or with their original number of limbs.
Most profoundly, though, and most likely to score with editors as a pitch, is the scenario where the British won the Revolutionary War and America never ceased to be a colony. In Canada, for instance, students are taught from an early age that England is the mother country that feeds us with her delicious cheese. So let’s imagine a similar scenario: In 1770, instead of getting all bratty and slicing people up with bayonets, American colonists had instead just said, “Fine, tax us whatever, just please don’t fund any more Ricky Gervais projects.” Today, we’d all be drinking top-notch tea and singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after watching Liverpool matches. And we’d definitely be up for a couple of weeks in Spain. We would have National Health Insurance, refer to French fries as “chips,” and there’d be an old queen with a Netflix show where she’s depicted as a super-sexy young chick married to Dr. Who.
I think, at this point, we all agree that it would be better to be England than America, as long as we get to keep California and the nicer parts of Colorado. America, thanks to its fake historians, has historically imagined itself a nation of homesteading rebels. But come with me through the portal, and you will see that the entire time you were really just a British pussycat grown fat on clotted cream and sunshine.
That is what it will take for this once-great nation to shake off the lugubrious weight of autocracy. We cannot depend on institutions that have been institutionalized, cannot depend on leaders who don’t lead, and, in the end, we cannot depend on Depends themselves, because everything and everyone leaks. Like many of my fellow writers, I long to rejoin the British Empire, or at least to get a book deal that argues the case. For, as Winston Churchill once wrote in “The Endless Sentence,” his history of England, “When, in fact, great nations gather under history’s storm, harrumph harrumph harrumph.” Or, as the British King Arthur put it in “The Legend of the Sword,” the recent documentary film, “Cheerio mate. Jolly good. Off you go to the loo!”
Of that we can be certain.
Neal Pollack has been the Greatest Living American Writer since the dawn of American letters in the early 1930s, or possibly before. He first came to the public’s attention writing for McSweeney’s in the late 1990s, and then through the publication of “The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature,” the greatest book in American literary history, and possibly in the literary history of all the Americas. The author of dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, fictional nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, interviews, and diet tips, Neal Pollack lives in a mansion on the summit of Mount Winchester with his beleaguered manservant, Roger. He has outlived Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and many more, and will outlive all of you, too. Follow him on Twitter at @Neal Pollack
On Friday, contractors for the city of New Orleans removed a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from public display in the city’s downtown area. The Lee statue was the last of four city monuments to the Confederacy to be taken down. The other three commemorated P.G.T. Beauregard, a prominent Confederate general from Louisiana, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the so-called Battle of Liberty Place, a race riot led by the White League that took place nearly a decade after the end of the Civil War and effectively ended Reconstruction in Louisiana.
Lee Circle in downtown New Orleans
The proposal to remove the statues was first made by Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu shortly after the 2015 shooting massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylan Roof.
At the start of the American Civil War in 1861, the port city of New Orleans was a vital conduit for cotton shipped down the Mississippi River from southern plantations worked by slaves. From New Orleans the cotton made its way to European markets. However, the city was retaken by Union forces only a year into the war and held by them until the end of the conflict in 1865.
The recapture of New Orleans, by far the South’s largest city, was a key strategic reversal for the Confederacy, which lost the entire Mississippi River after the Siege of Vicksburg by Union General Ulysses S. Grant in July 1863.
Contrary to some media reports describing the statues as “Confederate-era monuments,” all four of the statues were erected decades after the war, mostly during the period of legal racial segregation known as Jim Crow.
Particularly in recent months, the long-planned decision to remove the monuments was met with counter-campaigns organized by extreme-right circles, including white supremacists and fascistic elements. A rally led by the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke at Lee Circle earlier this month was promoted by Breitbart News, the internet watering hole of the “alt-right,” and by the neo-Nazi Stormfront website. Construction contractors throughout the region have been subjected to threats because of their role in removing the monuments.
Such forces, which have long had connections to the Republican Party, have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who has appealed to them through his right-wing populist rhetoric and his elevation of figures such as former Breitbart head Stephen Bannon to his White House staff and his naming of the reactionary former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general. However, these forces have not attracted widespread popular support, as evidenced by the small turnout to their demonstrations throughout the city.
The removal of these statues is no cause for mourning by any class-conscious worker. They stood for more than a century as symbols not only of slavery, but of the longstanding policy of the American bourgeoisie of utilizing racism to divide and weaken the working class.
Mayor Landrieu’s decision to remove the Confederate statues is not driven by concern for democratic issues, however. It is a tactical maneuver aimed at burnishing the Democratic Party’s image under conditions where it is widely hated for its attacks on the working class and its pro-war policies.
The decision to remove the monuments is bound up with the Democrats’ promotion of identity and racial politics, which are also used to divide the working class. Over decades, the Democratic Party has promoted identity politics to cultivate upper-middle class layers that see the rejection of class as the basic social category and elevation of issues of gender and race as an avenue for their personal advancement. This type of politics, falsely presented as “left-wing,” has served to cover up the Democrats’ abandonment of any, even minimal, program of social reform.
Landrieu recently published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post placing his decision to remove the monuments in the spirit of Barack Obama’s speech at the opening of the African American History museum in Washington last year. This only shows that his decision to remove the monuments has nothing to do with an honest reckoning with a “legacy of oppression,” as he claims. The conditions of the vast majority of African Americans deteriorated under Obama alongside the further growth of social inequality fueled by handouts for the rich and austerity for the poor. Obama was and remains the representative of a new financial aristocracy that is no less venal and reactionary than the old Southern slave-owning class.
Few American cities have more firsthand experience with the ruthlessness and greed of the American ruling class than New Orleans. The city was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a disaster that was itself the result of decades of official neglect, which left the city’s levee system unable to withstand the hurricane’s storm surges.
In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans was turned into a testing ground for social counterrevolution. Nearly all of the city’s public schools were converted into privately operated charter schools, which serve as a mechanism for the transfer of funds from public education to the coffers of the corporate-financial elite. Over a decade after the storm, whole working class neighborhoods such as the Lower 9th Ward remain depopulated ruins, and tens of thousands of former residents have yet to return.
Five years later, in 2010, the coastal waters near New Orleans were made toxic by the BP oil spill, the worst environmental catastrophe in American history. From the beginning, the Obama administration worked on behalf of the oil company to mask the true extent of the spill, shield the firm from financial responsibility, and protect BP executives from criminal prosecution. Not a single company official has been convicted on charges stemming from a disaster made inevitable by the company’s reckless pursuit of profit.
The campaign to remove the Confederate monuments in New Orleans, which has become a national news story in recent weeks, allows the Democrats to posture as popular opponents of the right-wing layers that Trump has drawn around himself. The importance of this for the Democrats is indicated by speculation last week by the New York Times that Landrieu, whose term as mayor ends next year, could be in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
There is a great deal of historical revisionism behind the campaign to remove the monuments, aimed at excising the class content of slavery and Jim Crow and presenting American society as being fundamentally divided by race. A programmatic statement by the Take ’Em Down NOLA Coalition, a pseudo-left organization that acts as a pressure group on the local Democratic Party, declares that “white supremacist ideas, represented by these symbols … permeate USA society.” The statement argues that this, rather than the capitalist system, is responsible for mass unemployment and police violence. It criticizes Landrieu and the Democratic-controlled City Council only for having “belatedly decided to join this progressive trend.”
The basic dividing line in American society is social class, not race. The promotion of racism is a class policy whose aim has always been the prevention of a mass social movement uniting workers of all races against capitalist exploitation. Jim Crow segregation, in particular, was enacted after the emergence of the Populist movement in the rural south and labor struggles in Southern cities that threatened to accomplish just such a unification of the working class and oppressed farmers.
Perhaps in no other Southern city was this danger for the ruling class as acute as in New Orleans, home to the region’s largest working class population. On the city’s docks, workers regularly crossed the color line during labor struggles, even during the height of Jim Crow. In the course of an investigation by the state legislature in 1908, after a successful New Orleans dockworkers’ strike that united black and white workers, lawmakers declared New Orleans “the worst nigger-ridden city in the south.”
“Echoing [these] sentiments,” labor historian Eric Arnesen later observed, “steamship agent Alfred LeBlanc denounced New Orleans as the ‘worst labor-ridden city in the country.’ Commission members had no difficulty discerning the connection between the two observations.” 
Because the working class remained tied politically through the trade unions to the Democratic Party, the party primarily responsible for enforcing Jim Crow in the South, it was unable to mount a political challenge capable of toppling the regime of segregation. Nevertheless, through their own experiences, workers began to grasp the class character of racism and the need to unite across racial boundaries in the face of a common enemy.
Socialists have always fought against racism. But they have always sought to do so by exposing its roots in a society based upon class exploitation and by uniting the working class of all races on the basis of a common revolutionary program. This must become the basis for a mass movement to defeat the Trump administration and secure the democratic and social rights of working people today.
 Eric Arnesen, WaterfrontWorkers of New Orleans: Race, Class and Politics, 1863-1923 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 60.
Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA(Credit: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo published a disquieting essay this week titled “Google, Not the Government, Is Building the Future.” His article followed a familiar formula for a New York Times opinion column: point out a so-called problem and follow it up with an anodyne technocratic solution.
“The tech giants that are building the future would like some help changing the world,” Manjoo wrote, identifying massive private investment in artificial intelligence research as a problem. “We would be wise to chip in,” Manjoo said about public investment in such technology, “or let them take over the future for themselves.”
But there’s a glaring problem with Manjoo’s logic — apparent in the headline.
Manjoo fundamentally misunderstands the reason that the tech industry exists. The tech industry does not exist to “build the future.” It does not exist to change the world. It does not exist to “disrupt” or “innovate” or to cull from any of the biz-speak buzzwords that the tech industry uses to mask its sole intent — which is, of course, to turn a profit.
There’s some kind of reality distortion field that pervades Silicon Valley, one that even an esteemed Times (and former Salon) columnist sometimes can’t even see. Hype goggles removed, there is no fundamental difference between Google and Monsanto; between Apple and Exxon; between Facebook and Raytheon. These publicly held corporations pay people money to make things and try to make sure that the amount they pay their workers is less than those goods sell for. That’s it. Anything else that the tech industry tells you that it does — say, try to convince you that it’s not out to profit, but to make the world amazing — is false. All the world-change rhetoric around Silicon Valley is an act of branding that lets the tech industry get away with far more than it should.
I should note that I am not questioning Manjoo’s secondary point, which is about government investment in research. Manjoo proposed that, lest the tech industry become too dominant in artificial intelligence research, the federal government should invest more in it. “Technology giants, not the government, are building the artificially intelligent future,” he wrote. “And unless the government vastly increases how much it spends on research into such technologies, it is the corporations that will decide how to deploy them.”
In general, that’s a great idea. Private research tends to enrich only private interests, while government research has the potential to more equitably distribute the gains.
What else did Manjoo prescribe we do to combat this so-called problem? Later on in his essay, Manjoo declared that there are only “two ways to respond to the tech industry’s huge investments in the intelligent future.”
“On the one hand,” he wrote, “you could greet the news with optimism and even gratitude. The technologies that Google and other tech giants are working on will have a huge impact on society. . . .But the tech industry’s huge investments in A.I. might also be cause for alarm, because they are not balanced by anywhere near that level of investment by the government.”
His notion that there are only “two ways” to respond is not true. There are far more than two. We could break up Google with anti-trust lawsuits — a move that has been argued for, and which is probably past due. We could make Twitter and Facebook into public, worker-owned entities or government-regulated monopolies. Given that they basically function as public utilities, this would remove some of their negative externalities, like their questionable privacy policies and their use of brain hacking that stem from their status as for-profit companies.
Or we could reduce the length of time that patents last or demand that the maker of any product that was made with publicly funded science pays royalties to the American people. We could even just get rid of tax loopholes and use the money to invest in science or even provide a basic income.
The imagination of elites struggles to comprehend political alternatives that involve bottom-up, rather than top-down, power. Indeed, if you’re reading this and having trouble imagining an alternative future, know that examples abound. There are a number of worker-owned tech enterprises in the model of gig economy companies; “platform cooperatism” is the term for this. “’Platform cooperativism’ hopes to harness the power of tech to democratize the economy and advance labor rights,” Tom Ladendorf wrote in a 2016 article for In These Times. Ladendorf cited TransUnion Car Service as an example of a worker-owned, unionized taxi service (Uber but without the exploitation!) and Stocksy, a stock photo company, whose artists are also voting members and co-owners of the agency.
The point is, Silicon Valley and The New York Times both suffer from a severe lack of imagination when it comes to considering what is politically possible. Silicon Valley believes that the future will be created from above, by the wise scions who impose their technological will on us. Farhad Manjoo believes that’s fine, but perhaps the government might spend a teensy bit more on science. These are both technocratic visions of a future ruled by technocrats from above. But we won’t have a future to build if we can’t imagine an alternative to the status quo.