Fake News & Bad Research

Part of the problem with the whole debate around the role of ‘fake news’ in contemporary politics is that we sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between purposeful fakery and sloppy reporting: thus, Trump can claim Clinton got 3-5 million ‘illegal’ votes while lambasting reporters who mistakenly wrote that he had removed the bust of Martin Luther King Jr from the Oval Office.

Unfortunately, the problem is even worse in the world of academic research: while careful reading and a bit of thought can often uncover bad or disingenuous work, most non-academic readers – including a lot of the journalists who report on it – don’t go to those lengths.

A case in point is a Bloomberg article making the rounds, citing academic research purporting to prove that fake news had little or no effect on the US election.  I’ll leave the journalist out of it (though he should know better, about which more later) and focus instead on the study, by economists Hunt Allcott and Mathew Gentzkow. It’s timely, important and methodologically advanced. It’s also spectacularly bad social science.

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Step Away from Trump’s Head

Let’s get one thing straight: No one knows what Donald Trump is thinking. Not Tom Friedman. Not David Rothkopf. Not even me.

No one knows what Donald Trump is thinking because there is no way to know what he is thinking. There is no window into his head, no wire from his brain to the wonkosphere. His tweets, scrolling by like a rolling commentary under his wobbly little chins, are not necessarily the same as his thoughts. Which doesn’t stop the likes of Friedman and Rothkopf from trying to convince us all that they – and only they – know what Trump is really thinking, and because we don’t know what they know, we’ll never get this administration right.

Sound familiar? It should: I wrote exactly the same thing about Vladimir Putin two years ago. Word for word, save for the names and the chins and the Twitter. Paragraph three of that old post works pretty well, too:

Here’s the thing: Whenever the world (or some part of it) thinks it has a grip on what Trump is thinking, he’ll surprise us. Not because he’s so inscrutable, but because there’s profit in it. And that’s my point: we cannot possibly know what he’s thinking, but we do know what his incentives are. And if we stop deluding ourselves with ad hoc psychoanalysis, we might actually figure something out.

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Tomorrow, it happens.

Tomorrow, the reality towards which we have been building for so many weeks, so many months, so many years, is consummated. Tomorrow, that man takes office. Takes charge. Takes over.

And then tomorrow will end, and we’ll be one day closer to the time when he will, finally, be gone.

Between tomorrow and that other day – perhaps four years into the future, or eight, or less – something else will happen. Between tomorrow and that other day, we will have to make a decision about who we are. What we’re doing. Where we’re going.

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Russia loses a hero

One of the most damning critiques of the argument that Russia cannot democratize, that it is an atomized society incapable of coming together around common humanistic values, lies in the simple fact of Russian philanthropy.

According to the best estimates, some 50% of urban Russians give to charity every year. The bulk of this money goes to help children – sick children, orphans, victims of violence or catastrophe – with smaller but still significant amounts going to help at-risk adults, religious organizations, health-care institutions and environmental preservation. And the numbers grow every year.

No one has done more to establish philanthropy in the fullest sense of the word – charity, kindness, generosity, humanity, mercy and care – than Elizaveta Glinka. Her work on behalf of cancer patients and the homeless, in the creation of the Russian hospice movement and in other fields has brought life and comfort to thousands. But the example she set has done much more than that: it has helped drive home the message that, even in the most uncooperative of circumstances, so much can be achieved.

Dr Liza, as she came to be known, died today, when a Russian aircraft crashed in the Black Sea. Where that plane was headed, how she came to be on it, and why it fell from the sky are, frankly, of little import, at least to me. Nearly a hundred lives were lost, all of them valuable. But among them was one woman who has done more than almost anyone to prove that every Russian life is valuable.

Russia has lost one of its greatest modern heroes.

Navalnyi goes into the breach

What follows is a rough English translation of a piece published with the BBC Russian Service earlier today. You can find the Russian original here.


“I want to be your voice” – those were the words Alexey Navalnyi used just recently to launch his presidential campaign. They don’t differ all that much from the words used by a very different presidential candidate in Ohio this summer. Donald Trump, however, eschewed caution and simply declared, “I am your voice.”

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How This Goes Down

I’ve seen this story before.

It begins by making sure that, until we get used to President Trump, the bark is worse than the bite. The ether around him will thrum with the vibrations of hellfire and brimstone. We will be rid of all doubt that he has meant everything he said during the campaign – about walls, about deportations, about taking names and keeping lists. We will begin to believe that, in fact, he means much worse than he said, that there will be internment camps, attacks on the media, the wholesale evisceration of all of our greatest accomplishments.

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The Silent Minority

Imagine, if you can, that there’s a presidential election going on in your country. And not just any election, but a highly emotionally charged one, with passions running high on both sides, to the point that even friendships and family ties are strained. And then imagine that someone asks you whom you support. Would you tell the truth? Are you sure?

Now, imagine you’re Russian. (Bear with me. It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think.)

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