Mr. Fish: Clarity at Last


From his website, Mitch hitchin’:

New study profiles the radicalized mindset


Until 2020, the word “radicalization” was linked most often with accounts of of groups like ISIS and the Taliban, defining the transformation of Muslims from believers to activists willing to die for a radical variant of a mainstream faith.

But with the growing violence accompany Donald Trump’s failed reelection bid, the word came to be applied primarily to Republicans stoked to violent actions by the inflammatory rhetoric of incumbent who fanned the flames of militant Christian zealotry, racism, resentment and xenophobia.

As Darren M. Slade, president of the Global Center of Religious Research, noted soon after the 6 January failed Capitol Hill coup:

“The radicalization of the Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., and the people who continue to support them, follows the same psychological pattern of radicalization that we see among Islamic terrorists (or, “Islamists”). This extremism typically occurs in a four-stage process where 1) a particular group undergoes an identity crisis due to feeling disenfranchised and subjugated by outside influences; 2) the group then refuses to abandon or adjust their ingroup’s mytho-identity about their own superiority, which causes cognitive dissonance and paranoia; 3) to maintain their mytho-identity, the group identifies a scapegoat to blame for their perceived subjugation; and finally 4) the group is provoked or incited to violence in order to correct a perceived cosmological and political injustice.

None of this goes to say that neither the Islamists nor the Trumpistas lacked legitimate grievances.

The United States and its allies have for more than a century ruthlessly exploited the Islamic world in the sustained effort to control their vast oil reserves, and both major U.S. political parties are subservient to plutocratic corporate and financial sector interests, the source of financial polarization of America that has seen the lion’s share of economic growth in urban, Democratic precincts while suburban and rural Republican districts have seen significant declines over the past decade, exemplified in this graphic from the Brookings Institution:

What other factors predispose to radicalization?

But economic despair isn’t the sole reason a motley horde of ever-Trumpers invaded the national legislature during the certification of the electoral vote. That mob numbered in the thousands, not the millions who still believe the Democrats stole an election Trump won.

From the 19 January Washington Post:

What else differentiates those willing to, say, livestream themselves committing violent criminal felonies on behalf of an overtly malignant lie- and hate-spewing narcissist?

Perhaps more of the reasons lie in the realm of mental predispositions. And, if so, what are they?

A team of researchers from one of the world’s most elite universities has ideas, and they’re backed by extensive research.

From the University of Cambridge:

Psychological ‘signature’ for the extremist mind uncovered

A new study suggests that a particular mix of personality traits and types of unconscious cognition – the ways our brain takes in basic information – is a strong predictor for extremist views across a range of beliefs, including nationalism and religious fervour.

These mental characteristics include poorer working memory and slower “perceptual strategies” – the unconscious processing of changing stimuli, such as shape and colour – as well as tendencies towards impulsivity and sensation seeking.      

This combination of cognitive and emotional attributes predicts the endorsement of violence in support of a person’s ideological “group”, according to findings published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

The study also maps the psychological signatures that underpin fierce political conservatism, as well as “dogmatism”: people who have a fixed worldview and are resistant to evidence.

Psychologists found that conservatism is linked to cognitive “caution”: slow-and-accurate unconscious decision-making, compared to the fast-and-imprecise “perceptual strategies” found in more liberal minds.

Brains of more dogmatic people are slower to process perceptual evidence, but they are more impulsive personality-wise. The mental signature for extremism across the board is a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychologies.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge say that, while still in early stages, this research could help to better identify and support people most vulnerable to radicalisation across the political and religious spectrum.

Approaches to radicalisation policy mainly rely on basic demographic information such as age, race and gender. By adding cognitive and personality assessments, the psychologists created a statistical model that is between four and fifteen times more powerful at predicting ideological worldviews than demographics alone.

“Many people will know those in their communities who have become radicalised or adopted increasingly extreme political views, whether on the left or right,” said Dr Leor Zmigrod, lead author from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.

“We want to know why particular individuals are more susceptible.”

“By examining ‘hot’ emotional cognition alongside the ‘cold’ unconscious cognition of basic information processing we can see a psychological signature for those at risk of engaging with an ideology in an extreme way,” Zmigrod said.

“Subtle difficulties with complex mental processing may subconsciously push people towards extreme doctrines that provide clearer, more defined explanations of the world, making them susceptible to toxic forms of dogmatic and authoritarian ideologies.”

The research is published as part of a special issue of the Royal Society journal dedicated to “the political brain” compiled and co-edited by Zmigrod, who recently won the Women of the Future Science award.

She has also been working with the UK Government as part of an academic and practitioner network set up to help tackle extremism.

The new study is the latest in a series by Zmigrod investigating the relationship between ideology and cognition. She has previously published findings on links between cognitive “inflexibility” and religious extremism, willingness to self-sacrifice for a cause, and a vote for Brexit.

A 2019 study by Zmigrod showed that this cognitive inflexibility is found in those with extreme attitudes on both the far right and far left of the political divide.

The latest research builds on work from Stanford University in which hundreds of study participants performed 37 different cognitive tasks and took 22 different personality surveys in 2016 and 2017.

Zmigrod and colleagues, including Cambridge psychologist Professor Trevor Robbins, conducted a series of follow-up tests in 2018 on 334 of the original participants, using a further 16 surveys to determine attitudes and strength of feeling towards various ideologies.

Study participants were all from the United States, 49.4% were female, and ages ranged from 22-63.

Part of the study used tests of the “executive functions” that help us to plan, organise and execute tasks e.g. restacking coloured disks to match guidelines, and keeping a series of categorised words in mind as new ones are added.

Additionally, results from various rapid decision-making tests – switching between visual stimuli based on evolving instructions, for example – were fed into computational models, allowing analyses of small differences in perceptual processing.  

Researchers took the results of the in-depth, self-reported personality tests and boiled them down to 12 key factors ranging from goal-directedness and emotional control to financial risk-taking.

The examination of social and political attitudes took in a host of ideological positions including patriotism, religiosity and levels of authoritarianism on the left and right.  

The Cambridge team used data modeling techniques such as Bayesian analyses to extract correlations. They then measured the extent to which blends of cognition and personality could help predict ideological attitudes. 

From the report. Click on the image to enlarge

Political conservatism and nationalism was related to “caution” in unconscious decision-making, as well as “temporal discounting” – when rewards are seen to lose value if delayed – and slightly reduced strategic information processing in the cognitive domain. 

Personality traits for conservatism and nationalism included greater goal-directedness, impulsivity and reward sensitivity, and reduced social risk-taking. Demographics alone had a predictive power of less than 8% for these ideologies, but adding the psychological signature boosted it to 32.5%. 

Dogmatism was linked to reduced speed of perceptual “evidence accumulation”, and reduced social risk-taking and agreeableness but heightened impulsivity and ethical risk-taking in the personality domain. Religiosity was cognitively similar to conservatism, but with higher levels of agreeableness and “risk perception”.

Adding the psychological signatures to demographics increased the predictive power for dogmatism from 1.53% to 23.6%, and religiosity from 2.9% to 23.4%.

Across all ideologies investigated by the researchers, people who endorsed “extreme pro-group action”, including ideologically-motivated violence against others, had a surprisingly consistent psychological profile. 

The extremist mind – a mixture of conservative and dogmatic psychological signatures – is cognitively cautious, slower at perceptual processing and has a weaker working memory. This is combined with impulsive personality traits that seek sensation and risky experiences.

Added Zmigrod: “There appear to be hidden similarities in the minds of those most willing to take extreme measures to support their ideological doctrines. Understanding this could help us to support those individuals vulnerable to extremism, and foster social understanding across ideological divides.”

Peter Brookes: Unimpeachable


From the Times of London:

Most jailed insurrectionists struggled with financial woes


Most of those arrested un the 6 January Capitol coup attempt were men and women whose desperation was, in part, fueld by personal fiancial crises, according to a study from the Washington Post.

From the Washington Post:

Nearly 60 percent of the people facing charges related to the Capitol riot showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records for 125 defendants with sufficient information to detail their financial histories.

The group’s bankruptcy rate — 18 percent — was nearly twice as high as that of the American public, The Post found. A quarter of them had been sued for money owed to a creditor. And 1 in 5 of them faced losing their home at one point, according to court filings.

<snip>

The financial problems are revealing because they offer potential clues for understanding why so many Trump supporters — many with professional careers and few with violent criminal histories — were willing to participate in an attack egged on by the president’s rhetoric painting him and his supporters as undeserving victims.

<snip>

“I think what you’re finding is more than just economic insecurity but a deep-seated feeling of precarity about their personal situation,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a political science professor who helps run the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, reacting to The Post’s findings. “And that precarity — combined with a sense of betrayal or anger that someone is taking something away — mobilized a lot of people that day.”

The message for Democrats

Note the use of that word “precarity,” a term we’ve frequently used in describing the victims of 21st Century unbridled capitalism, a system in wealth is equated with virtue, and in which the poor and the marginalized are simply suckers, the dregs of of an all-against-all social Darwinian struggle.

In the 1930s, people in similar plights were the backbone of the Democratic Party, mobilized and energized by a vibrant left and the politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

And they are the same people abandoned by the Democrats starting with Jimmy Carter and even more by the neoiliberal regime of William Jefferson Clinton.

Abandoned by the Democrats as the party shifted to the Right, they were the natural prey for the rhetoric of Donald Trump, and so desperate they were willing to grasp at the thinnest of reeds with the hope of escaping a flood of debt and finding high ground.

By merging itself with the pastors of deeply reactionary but deeply media savvy megachurches, the Republicans made a pact with the devil, who arrived in the person of Donald Trump, a man who rejected the Sermon on the Mount and indulged in almost everything Christians once considered abominations.

And the greatest boost to his fame was The Apprentice, a show based on the rawest form of social Darwinism.

Trump promised change in jeremiads, a form familiar to any student of the Bible, and because most reactionary Christians fervently hope for the imminent onset of the End Times.

If the Democrats are ever to reach these people, the party must revive some of the fervor it possessed in the 1930s.

And his Christian followers would do well to remind themselves of a Bale verse, specifically Luke 16:13:

No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Quote of the day: An insurrectionist’s texts


From WUSA News, the CBS affiliate in the nation’s capital:

An alleged member of the Oath Keepers now indicted on conspiracy charges in the Capitol riot claims in a new legal filing that he holds a top secret clearance and was a former FBI section chief.

Thomas Edward Caldwell, 65, of Clarke County, Virginia, was indicted on January 27 on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, destruction of government property and entering a restricted building along with two alleged co-conspirators – Donovan Ray Crowl and Jessica Marie Watkins.

The government has asserted all three are members of the Oath Keepers militia group. Crowl and Watkins are accused of being part of the Ohio State Regular Militia Chapter. During a search of Watkins’ Ohio home, federal investigators have said they found homemade weapons and instructions for making plastic explosives.

Caldwell is accused of being a leader within the organization, and investigators say they’ve obtained communications between him and other alleged members of the Oath Keepers in which he appears to be coordinating travel to Washington, D.C., and activities on January 6. In those communications, investigators say, members of the Oath Keepers refer to Caldwell as “Commander.”

According to his lawyer, Caldwell is a retired lieutenant commander in U.S Naval Intelligence, as well as a former FBI section leader and a defense contractor with a Top Secret security clearance.

In other words, a man with deep connections to law enforcement and the spy world who knows how to command.

In an affidavit filed in opposition to Caldwell’s request to be released on prior to trial, by Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Michael R. Sherwin spells out the threat Caldwell represented:

The detailed and organized nature of Caldwell’s planning for the January 6 operation and Capitol assault was uniquely dangerous and continues to impact security in the District and beyond.Everything he did, he did in concert with an anti-government militia.Specifically, Caldwell helped organize a tactical unit of trained fighters that stormed and breached the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

And then there’s this:

Caldwell knew his coordination and planning efforts may lead to violence. After the November 2020 Million Maga rally, he confirmed to Crowl, “there will be real violence for all of us next time.” Doubling down, he messaged Watkins, “I believe we will have to get violent to stop this,”apparently referring to losing his country.And Caldwell left no doubt as to who he believed was taking his country, warranting violence: individuals he disagreed with. Whether it was an“enemy,” “socialists,” “savages,” “antifa-like bugs,” “maggots,” or “cockroaches,”Caldwell dehumanized those who held opposing worldviews and discussed killing them, shooting them, and mutilating their corpses to use them as shields. He admitted himself, that he has his own gear, and likes to “go where the enemy is, especially after dark.”

Quotes of the day

The affidavit chronicles decrypted text messages between Caldwell and officers from Oath Keepers groups and militia members, including this one, sent following a meeting at his home where he accepted leadership of the activists who would enter the Capitol as a unit. The message was sent three days after the 14 November Million MAGA March in which he and the others participated [emphasis add]:

I probably overstepped my bounds during our op. I know you could tell how committed I was to it and I tend to step up. Maybe one of my major flaws. However, who knew if we would have to do serious battle that day. I figure you have to plan for the worst. Thankfully, their fear of conflict with those who can dish out the violence kept their numbers down and made up for our shortfalls. I truly believe that like it ALWAYS happens, the success was due to the professionalism, dedication and adaptability of the men and women who have to execute the plan and adapt as they go. I saw it in all of you and it made me proud and even more grateful that you accepted me to play a part. Next time (and there WILL be a next time) we will have learned and we will be stronger. I think there will be real violence for all of us next time. I know its not my place but I’m sure you have seen enough to know I am already working on the next D.C. op. We either WILL have a country and we’ll be battling antifa-like bugs to keep it or we will have lost our country/freedom and we will be fighting to regain it. I know I csn [sic] count on you. Hope you feel the same….

The second text is dated 3 January, three days before the foiled insurrection, and details a plan for using heavy weapons:

Can’t believe I just thought of this: how many people either in the militia or not (who are still supportive of our efforts to save the Republic) have a boat on a trailer that could handle a Potomac crossing? If we had someone standing by at a dock ramp (one near the Pentagon for sure) we could have our Quick Response Team with the heavy weapons standing by, quickly load them and ferry them across the river to our waiting arms. I’m not talking about a bass boat. Anyone who would be interested in supporting the team this way? I will buy the fuel. More or less be hanging around sipping coffee and maybe scooting on the river a bit and pretending to fish, then if it all went to shit, our guy loads our weps AND Blue Ridge Militia weps and ferries them across. Dude! If we had 2 boats, we could ferry across and never drive into D.C. at all!!!! Then get picked up. Is there a way to PLEASE pass the word among folks you know and see if someone would jump in the middle of this to help. I am spreading the word, too. Genius if someone is willing and hasn’t put their boat away for the winter.

How many others like him are still at large?

A deep look at the flawed impeachment process


Watching the events of 6 January from start to finish and the current unfolding of the impeachment trial, it’s become clear that the American system is broken, leaving only the question of whether it can be repaired without the shedding of copious blood, or if the country is headed to a befuddled senescence that invariably accompanies the end of empires.

There can be no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind that Trump incited the violent insurrection, building on a foundation of five years of violent rhetoric and the repeated open declaration of his support for violent actions against those who challenge his lies and self-serving distortions.

With the Senate Republicans almost certain to block conviction, the specter of Donald Trump will endure long after his demise.

But how have we come to this pass? And what does the future hold?

Author, journalist, and Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper looks at the historical and behavioral roots of our dilemma in this powerful essay published in openDemocracy:

Trump’s impeachment trial already shows how far US democracy has been undermined

Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial is as confusing to many Americans as it is to others who are following it from abroad. The US Senate, which will try him, is not a criminal court, much less the International Court of Justice that some people wish it were on this occasion. Although Trump’s offenses are more egregious than those that were charged against him in the first, failed trial in 2020, he’s no more likely to be convicted now than before. That’s true even though the Senate chamber itself was part of the crime scene this year, as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, and senators were among the targets and witnesses.

The present confusion has two fundamental causes, one constitutional and divisive by design, the other more opportunistic than malevolent.

The constitutional cause, which arises from the fact that the US is a federation of 50 semi-sovereign states, frequently leads to institutional obstruction in national politics. When a president is impeached, charges are brought by the House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress, but tried by the Senate, the upper body. Senators can remove the president for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but only if two-thirds, 67 of them, agree. But unlike jurors elsewhere, senators are elected to their positions, and each represents a particular state. They tend to be bound less tightly by their individual consciences, by the evidence, or by deliberation with other senators than by the voters who elevated them to their six-year terms in office.

Can beleaguered Americans rejuvenate their civil society to curb the poisons that Trump has carried into their politics?

Rational deliberation is skewed also by the fact that senators’ votes count equally, even though they can represent vastly different numbers of people. California, whose 40 million residents tend to elect relatively liberal Democratic representatives, sends two senators to Washington. So does Wyoming, whose population of less than 600,000 tends to be heavily right-wing and Republican. Whatever that imbalance does for state sovereignty, it produces a polity in which roughly 70% of US citizens, who live in states such as California, New York, Texas, and Florida, are represented by only 50% of senators.

The present Senate, controlled narrowly by Democrats, will need to find 17 Republicans to achieve the two-thirds vote to convict Trump. It won’t find them in today’s bitterly polarized polity, no matter what evidence and arguments Trump’s prosecutors present.

The consequences were anticipated by Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and a manager of Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020, when he warned senators that if they don’t allow clear evidence and reason to determine what’s right, “it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is … If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”

If the Constitution facilitates deep division, so does an even more powerful sower of confusion. Trump’s characterization of impeachment proceedings as “political theater” mirrors the performance that he himself has staged ever since his defeat in the 3 November election. He staged it most fatefully on 6 January, at the rally that preceded the assault on the Capitol, showing his swooning, raging devotees a chillingly powerful film (assessed as proto-fascist propaganda by the Yale philosopher and scholar of fascism Jason Stanley) just before they began their assault, many of them videotaping it, unintentionally providing their and Trump’s prosecutors with useful documentation.

It’s strongly reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels’ tactic of accusing anti-fascists relentlessly of offenses that Nazis were committing far more often and more brutally. It also highlights the danger in seemingly apolitical, anodyne commercial forces – such as the appropriation of personal data by internet platforms and the rampant financialization of workplaces and homes – that turn active citizens into cogs and pawns.

A steady evisceration

On Trump’s ascent to the presidency in 2017, I summarized Edward Gibbon’s account of the analogous rise of ancient Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, who eviscerated what was left of the Roman Republic’s principles and liberties. In Gibbon’s account, Augustus knew that “the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A feeble senate and enervated people cheerfully acquiesced in the pleasing illusion.”

Augustus “reformed” the Senate by blackmailing and brutalizing some of its members: he expelled those “whose vices or whose obstinacy required a public example” and persuaded others “to prevent the shame of an expulsion by a voluntary retreat”. This terrified the rest so that they surrendered to the tyrant. Trump similarly terrifies senators, threatening to depose any who defy him, directing his mobs to replace them with more servile Republicans in the party’s primary elections.

“The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive,” Gibbon reflected. It was almost as if he anticipated a time when Americans, trapped like flies in a spider’s web of sticky-fingered but seductive surveillance machines, would ignore the insinuation of what he called “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire”.

The more subtly impoverished and imprisoned people are by casino-like financing, predatory marketing, and media such as Rupert Murdoch’s that teach them to scapegoat others, the more they seek relief in pills, vials and empty spectacles that leave them too ill to bear their sicknesses or their cures, capable only of occasional eruptions and cries for a strongman. Trump is less the primary cause than the accelerant of a derangement of society that preceded and molded him.

“It is quite terrifying when rational exchange is totally blocked by steely-eyed, unlistening dogmatic assertion,” the president of Yale, Kingman Brewster Jr, told my class shortly before our graduation in 1969. He recalled that in 1937, before entering Yale, he’d traveled “through National Socialist Germany,” where he “was taken in hand by a stormtrooper deputized to be hospitable to unwary young foreign tourists. We sat at a café on Unter Den Linden. I, of course, began to argue about National Socialist policy … Suddenly I realized there could be no argument, not because of the censorship of fear but because of the dogmatic dictate which said … ‘it is so because the Fuhrer wills it so.’

“Dogmatism is the enemy of a moral society,” Brewster added, “for without the morality of reason it is hard to see how there can be any higher standard than passion and force. And if passion and authority respond to no checkrein of reason, then neither authority nor its victims can avoid a crude confrontation of naked power.”

Can beleaguered Americans rejuvenate their civil society and sustain new social movements to curb the poisons of malevolence and mindlessness that Trump has carried into their politics? That will require more than a trial or a pie in Murdoch’s face.

Mr. Fish: GOP Almighty!


From his inevitably eviscerating website:

Nations target Big Tech bucks for legacy media


Two tech giants have captured most of the world’s advertising dollars, dealing a potential death blow to newspapers across the globe.

Here in the United States, the shift from print to online has crushed the nation’s already declining newspapers, already stricken by mergers, hedge fund takeovers, and a radical decline in working journalists.

A chart from the 20 January edition of Financial Times captures the dramatic extent of the shift:

Digital ad revenues favor the giants

Just how profitable are these new media money machines?

Some numbers from a 2 February report from Deadline:

Google/YouTube parent Alphabet saw revenue jump last quarter driven by YouTube and search as advertising recovered. The giant company’s total sales surged to $56.9 billion for the last three months of 2020 from $46 billion the year before, smashing expectations.

YouTube ad revenue jumped to $6.9 billion from $4.7 billion last year and $5 billion last quarter. Google search and other advertising revenue was $31.9 billion, up from $27.2 billion the year before.

<snip>

YouTube ad revenue jumped to $6.9 billion from $4.7 billion last year and $5 billion last quarter. Google search and other advertising revenue was $31.9 billion, up from $27.2 billion the year before.

The money comes from a de facto monopoly

In the case of Google, a small spend can capture as many eyes as a costly print ad, making the search engine an financially unbeatable medium for the businesses seeking consumers.

From WGBH public television in Boston:

Publishers can’t live with Google and can’t live without it. Years ago, before the Google-Facebook lockdown on ad revenue was even on the horizon, publishers would argue that Google should pay them. Google would counter that it was driving traffic to news sites, thus increasing the value of advertising on those sites. There was some logic to Google’s argument, though somehow it never worked out in favor of the publishers.

The problem in recent years is that Google acquired a number of advertising businesses and now controls not just search but also the advertising associated with search. Through the use of an automated auction system, the price of digital ads is being driven ever lower, making it all but worthless. As Nicco Mele, a former deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, explained several years ago, a full-page weekday ad in the paper that cost $50,000 had given way to Google ads on its website that brought in less than $20 to reach the same number of readers.

“To a large extent, Facebook and Google are sucking up revenue that publishers of content should be receiving,” Mele told an audience at Harvard.

It’s the ever-shrinking value of digital advertising that’s being targeted in the West Virginia lawsuit, brought by HD Media. The small chain owns seven newspapers, most notably the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington. Paul Farrell, the lawyer who represents the papers, told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that Google is leveraging its control of two entirely different businesses in order to monopolize ad revenues and squeeze out anyone else.

“They have completely monetized and commercialized their search engine, and what they’ve also done is create an advertising marketplace in which they represent and profit from the buyers and the sellers, while also owning the exchange,” Farrell was quoted as saying. “Google is the broker for the buyer and gets a commission. Google is the broker for the seller and gets a commission. Google owns, operates and sets the rules for the ad exchange. And they are also in the market themselves.”

The Google war Down Under

As we’ve noted on other occasions, Google is fighting a war with the Australian government, which has enacted a law that the the company and the major online advertising giant, Facebook, must share some of their wealth with the newspapers whose content they exploit.

According to The Australian, Google captures 94% searches in the country, followed by Bing with 3.7%, and DuckDuckGo and Yahoo! with 0.7% each. And with the government demanding the digital giants share their largess with the publications cited in their searches, there’s lots at stake.

From Bloomberg, the reasoning:

Google’s dominance of digital advertising technology in Australia needs to be addressed, the country’s competition watchdog said, opening up another front in its battle with the US giant.

In some areas of the market, Google takes in 100% of the revenue or ads traded, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission. That degree of influence means Google “is likely to have the ability and the incentive” to use its own ad tech businesses and distort competition, the regulator said.

The interim report, part of the ACCC’s inquiry into digital advertising services, stokes tensions further between the company and Australian authorities. The Alphabet Inc threatened to disable its search engine in Australia if the government enacts legislation forcing the company to pay publishers for news.

“There is a real lack of competition, choice and transparency in this industry,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said in the statement. The ACCC said it’s seeking feedback on a number of ways to promote competition in advertising technology, including rules to manage conflicts of interest and prevent so-called self-preferencing in the supply of ad tech services.

As the ACCC’s report notes:

As consumers spend increasing amounts of time online, advertising expenditure in Australia has similarly shifted online. This has resulted in considerable growth in spending on digital advertising in Australia over the past decade.

Digital advertising expenditure reached $9.1billion in the 2019-20 financial year, despite the impact of COVID-19 on ad spend. In 2019, digital advertising comprised 53.2%of the $16.6 billion spent on advertising in Australia.

From their report, the dramatic capture of advertising by digital platforms Down Under:

Australia’s other target is Facebook, which, as the ACCC report concludes, has already captured the lion’s share of digital display ads:

Facebook is a significant supplier of owned-and-operated display advertising inventory and has a substantial share of the overall supply of display advertising in Australia. In 2019, Facebook had a 62%of display advertising revenue in Australia.

However, the owned-and-operated display advertising supplied by Facebook is only available to advertisers through its own ad tech services, which function as an end to end ad buying solution for advertisers looking to purchase Facebook’s ad inventory.

Another benefit for publishers

As both a newspaper reporter and an avid reader of the medium, I’ve notice through the years that many of the most important stories get relatively little readership. Despite those low numbers, the stories often exert outsize influence because of who those fewer readers are, people n positions of power exposed to an intelligent presentation of critical facts and ideas.

The new Australian rules offer a way to ensure that those stories won’t necessarily be driven into journalistic purgatory by sleaze, celebrity, and scandal.

The details from Australia’s Sunshine Coast Daily:

The news code also states that digital platforms should not discriminate against media outlets or their content based on the negotiations. For example, they should not stop showing news stories from an outlet because talks are not progressing well.

It also requires digital platforms give registered news outlets 14 days’ notice before changing its “algorithm or internal practice” in a way that would “significantly” affect the way news content is shown. That is defined as a change that would result in a “20 per cent or greater change in referral traffic”.

Digital platforms are also required to develop ways to recognise original news content.

Google makes a proactive move in the U.K.

As a major player in the Commonwealth of Nations [known in earlier times as the British Commonwealth], the country’s formal head of state is the the British monarch.

In what might amount to a move to preempt Ausralian-style state-mandated payments, Google has signed deals directly with publishers.

From the New York Post:

Google is rolling out a plan to pay for news to the UK.

The web search giant, which has been under pressure to share digital ad revenue with web content providers that drive traffic to its services, said it has signed deals to pay licensing fees to 120 British publications, including The Financial Times and Reuters, through its Google News Showcase.

The program, which Google CEO Sundar Pichai in October said would help the company pay $1 billion to publishers over the next three years, has reportedly signed 450 news partners worldwide from Germany to Brazil.

It’s the first time Google will pay for news in Britain.

“Google News Showcase, our new product experience and licensing program for news, will begin rolling out with local, national and independent publishers in the UK,” said Ronan Harris, vice president and managing director at Google UK and Ireland, who unveiled the latest rollout in a blog post on Wednesday.

In the U.S., a newspaper chain goes to court

In the U.S., where no such agreements or laws exist, one newspaper chain is taking Google to court.

From the Chandigarh, India, Tribune:

A US-based news organisation has filed a lawsuit against Facebook and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, alleging that the tech giants with their dominance over the digital advertising market adversely affected an important revenue source.

The lawsuit makes the argument the Google and Facebook represent a digital monopoly that should be broken up, The Verge reported on Monday.

“Google and Facebook have monopolised the digital advertising market thereby strangling a primary source of revenue for newspapers across the country,” according to the complaint filed by HD Media.

HD Media operates Charleston Gazette-Mail, The (Huntington) Herald-Dispatch and several other West Virginia newspapers.

The organisation filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

And a Canadian move takes an Aussie approach

And it’s not about the money.

From CDOTrends, a Canadian news portal for chief data officers:

In recent days, the same issue has emerged in Canada. Here, an umbrella group of media organizations is calling on their legislators and regulators to copy the Australian example. 

Last week, News Media Canada started a campaign called Disappearing Headlines, leaving front pages of papers across the country to protest against tech giants not paying for news content.

An editorial in the Toronto Star said the news was “under attack” from Google and Facebook.

“Without reliable, trusted journalism that informs you and keeps our governments accountable, our democracy and the future of our children will suffer,” it read.

“It costs real money to report trusted, fact-based news. Unfortunately, global tech giants such as Google and Facebook refuse to pay a fair price for content created by Canadian news outlets. At the same time, these titans drain off more than 80% of all digital advertising revenue in Canada.”

While Europe is taking aim at profitable surveillance

Part of the reason Google, Facebook, YouTube, and all the other platforms are so profitable is their ability to target audiences with ads tuned to their personal preferences by stalking our every move on the web.

New rules under consideration by the European Union would bad targeted ads, as well as giving users much greater control over personal data in corporate hands..

From TechCrunch:

The European Union’s lead data protection supervisor has recommended that a ban on targeted advertising based on tracking internet users’ digital activity be included in a major reform of digital services rules which aims to increase operators’ accountability, among other key goals.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), Wojciech Wiewiorówski, made the call for a ban on surveillance-based targeted ads in reference to the Commission’s Digital Services Act (DSA) — following a request for consultation from EU lawmakers.

The DSA legislative proposal was introduced in December, alongside the Digital Markets Act (DMA) — kicking off the EU’s (often lengthy) co-legislative process, which involves debate and negotiations in the European Parliament and Council on amendments before any final text can be agreed for approval. This means battle lines are being drawn to try to influence the final shape of the biggest overhaul to pan-EU digital rules for decades — with everything to play for.

The intervention by Europe’s lead data protection supervisor calling for a ban on targeted ads is a powerful pre-emptive push against attempts to water down legislative protections for consumer interests.

We love data protections, but we’re really excited about used Big Tech bucks to fund legacy media, the source of so much content on their their platforms.

Study: Fossil fuel air pollution kills one in five


The fossil fuels we consume to maintain our modern industrial world aren’t just sending global temperatures soaring; they’re literally killing us, according to a new scientific study.

From the Independent:

Air pollution from fossil fuels could account for nearly one in five deaths globally, a new study suggests.

The research finds air pollution from fossil fuel burning accounted for around 10 million premature deaths in 2012 – with China and India seeing the largest number of lives cut short.

The number of deaths associated with air pollution from fossil fuels fell to 8.7 million in 2018, the study estimates, as a result of significant improvements to air quality in China. This figure represents around 18 per cent of the total number of deaths recorded in 2018, the researchers say.

Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study focuses specifically on deaths attributable to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution.

“PM2.5 can penetrate deep into our lungs,” Karn Vohra, study lead author and a PhD student in environmental health sciences at University of Birmingham, told The Independent. 

ToonTime: Impeachment follies continue


We begin across the pond with a cinematic reference from the Independent::

Dave Brown: The sequel

Next, via Twitter:

Ed Harris: A jury of his peers

The Seattle Times echoes:

David Horsey: Still in lockstep

On to Newsday:

Matt Davies: Inflaming

And a Canadian look at the evidence:

Michael de Adder: Not a friendly wave

The Chattanooga Times Free Press examines the evidence:

Clay Bennett: Exhibit A

The Arizona Daily Star offers a plea:

David Fitzsimmons: Impeachment verdict

And a closing statement from the Birmingham, Alabama, News:

JD Crowe: Drawing conclusions

Next, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution weighs in with a spin on a recent lawyerly faux pas:

Mike Luckovich: Unseen

The Charlotte Observer does the same:

Kevin Siers: Zooming Birds of a Feather

The same media mishap draws another response from the Times of London:

Peter Brookes: Grabbing ’em by the pussy

The Boston Globe ponders a division:

Patrick Chappatte: Conspiracies in the halls of power

On to the Newark Star-Ledger:

Drew Sheneman: Trump has terrible taste in lawyers

Same subject, different take, via the Sacramento Bee:

Jack Ohman: Billable Billboard

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune, collateral damage:

Steve Sack: Gotcha

While the New York Daily News sees problems ahead:

Bill Bramhall: Georgia criminal investigation

And the Rutland, Vermont, Herald goes straight to the source:

Jeff Danziger: QAnon Revealed

And to close, this from the Salt Lake Tribune:

Pat Bagley: Ballots vs. Bullets

Chart of the day: Bitcoin, anything but green


From BBC News, graphic evidence that cryptocurrency fuels global warming:

From their report:

Bitcoin uses more electricity annually than the whole of Argentina, analysis by Cambridge University suggests. “Mining” for the cryptocurrency is power-hungry, involving heavy computer calculations to verify transactions.

Cambridge researchers say it consumes around 121.36 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year – and is unlikely to fall unless the value of the currency slumps.

Critics say electric-car firm Tesla’s decision to invest heavily in Bitcoin undermines its environmental image.

The currency’s value hit a record $48,000 (£34,820) this week. following Tesla’s announcement that it had bought about $1.5bn bitcoin and planned to accept it as payment in future. But the rising price offers even more incentive to Bitcoin miners to run more and more machines.

Facebook announces cuts in political posts


Continuing with our social media posts, Facebook has announced that ity plans to reduce its emphasis on political posts in three countries.

From Deutsche Welle:

The world’s biggest social media company, Facebook, will temporarily reduce political content for users in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia starting this week. The platform would take similar steps in the United States “in the coming weeks,” according to a blog post on Wednesday.

In January, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “turn down the temperature” of political discourse on Facebook because “people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services.”

The social network, which has come in for criticism for not doing enough to remove hateful content, announced in January that it would stop recommending civic and political groups.

“One common piece of feedback we hear,” Wednesday’s blog post began, “is that people don’t want political content to take over their News Feed.”

“Over the next few months we’ll work to better understand peoples’ varied preferences for political content and test a number of approaches based on those insights,” the post continued. “As a first step, we’ll temporarily reduce the distribution of political content in News Feed for a small percentage of people in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia this week, and the US in the coming weeks.”

Mexican government makes a move against Twitter


Following up on our previous post about India’s war on Twitter comes news that Twitter and other social media are also under fire in Mexico, where new legislation is taking shape that would limits the ability of social media to revoke user posts.

From Developing Telecoms:

Mexico is also looking at ways to manage Twitter’s output. According to Reuters, a prominent senator from Mexico’s ruling party has used ‘freedom of expression’ as a reason for the proposed regulating of major social media networks, including Twitter and Facebook. The reform is apparently aimed at “establishing the grounds and general principles of the protection of freedom of expression in social networks”.

More accurately, the proposed amendment to the federal telecommunications law would grant Mexico’s telecoms regulator oversight in establishing a framework for the suspension and elimination of accounts on social networks.

Ricardo Monreal, the leader of president Lopez Obrador’s MORENA party in the upper house, proposed the legislation. Lopez Obrador has been critical of social media recently, so it will be interesting to see whether he supports this move.

More from Deutsche Welle:

The draft bill, which is 52 pages long and comprises 175 paragraphs, would grant Mexico’s telecoms regulator, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT), considerable authority over a new framework for blocking and removing user accounts, as well as the right to decide whether a service provider can continue operating in the country.

 Monreal has defended the proposed legislation as a means of restricting the power of private companies. He said that the state had to ensure that user rights were respected and that freedom of information and opinion were guaranteed. “A private company cannot curtail your freedom of speech in an unchallenged way,” he said. “I am not bowing down to capital; I want to regulate it.”

He rejected allegations of censorship, which have come from many sides, including from the Latin American Internet Association (ALAI), which warned that the reform would violate “the free and open nature of the internet” by creating a supervisory authority and treating a global phenomenon from a national standpoint. The ALAI also said that the law would violate the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

The Yucatan Times links the origin of the proposed legislation to Twitters ban on Donald Trump, and Mexico’s President was one of the last two world leaders to recognize Trump’s loss as well as a fierce critic of Twitter’s decision to block Trump from the platform:

The new law proposed Monday by López Obrador’s Morena party would open the companies to fines of up to $4.4 million for violating users’ right to free speech. The law would apply only to platforms that have over one million users in Mexico, apparently covering only sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or YouTube.

The proposal would allow anyone whose account is blocked or canceled to appeal the decision. The appeals would go first to the company’s own internal committees, which would have 24 hours to affirm or revoke the suspension. Users could then appeal to telecom regulators, and if they don’t like that decision, they could then further appeal cancellations through Mexican courts.

“After the blocking in January of the personal accounts of then President of the United States, Donald Trump, we had already warned on the risk of the emergence of disproportionate bills to regulate information on these platforms,” Jorge Canahuati, president of the InterAmerican Press Association. said in a statement.

The head of the group’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Carlos Jornet, wrote that “a bad law can generate a boomerang effect, deconstructing decades in which freedom of expression was consolidated in Mexico.”

Twitter war with India amps up again


The Hindu nationalist India government of Narendra Modi hates Twitter because the company won’t block all the accounts Modi wants stopped because of their support for the six-month-old Indian farmer protest against three new farming law, laws farmers say will render them prey to the full ravages of multinational corporate Big Agra.

And now with Twitter digging in, the India government is transferring its Twitter accounts to a replacement offered by an Indian company that’s ,much more amenable to the government’s censorious wishes.

We begin with the company’s latest move, via Reuters:

Twitter Inc said on Wednesday it would not fully comply with orders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to take down some accounts as it does not believe the orders are consistent with Indian law.

It has permanently suspended some accounts but for others, it has only restricted access within India and the tweets can still be read outside the country.

The U.S. social media giant has found itself in a heated no-win row with Modi’s administration, which wants it to take down more than 1,100 accounts and posts that the government argues are spreading misinformation about months-long farmers’ protests against new agricultural laws.

Some accounts, the government said, are backed by arch-rival Pakistan or are operated by supporters of a separatist Sikh movement.

The government has played hardball, sending Twitter a notice of non-compliance last week that threatens its executives with jail terms of up to seven years and the company with fines if it does not block the content.

Twitter said it had suspended more than 500 accounts that were engaging in clear examples of platform manipulation and spam, and had also taken actions on hundreds of others that breached its rules relating to the inciting of violence and abuse.

And the government’s response, via The Hindu:

Amid the ongoing tussle between the government and microblogging platform Twitter over blocking of content and accounts related to farmers’ protest, Union Ministers and government departments are also setting up accounts on Koo, a Made-in-India alternative to Twitter.

Union Minister Piyush Goyal on Tuesday announced on Twitter, “I am now on Koo. Connect with me on this Indian micro-blogging platform for real-time, exciting and exclusive updates. Let us exchange our thoughts and ideas on Koo.”

Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Adviser, Finance Ministry, responded to it, stating “See you there shortly………”.

Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad already has a verified handle on Koo, and so do the departments he handles, including Telecom, IT, India Post. Other government departments such as the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs, and MyGovIndia, are also present on Koo.

Maybe Donald Trump can set himself up on Koo. At least he’ll have the comfort of sharing the platform with another ethnic nationalist government.

After all, he’s already Koo-Koo.

Corporate capture of agriculture and its woes


As with ao much else in life, agriculture, perhaps most revolutionary force in the evolution of modern civilization, is now controlled by a handful of corporate giants.

And therein lies the rub.

From Farm Aid:

A handful of corporations control our food from farm to fork. Their unbridled power grants them increasing political influence over the rules that govern our food system and allows them to manipulate the marketplace – pushing down the prices paid to family farmers and driving them out of business. For eaters, extreme consolidation leaves fewer choices in the grocery aisle and higher prices, while corporate-written policies are sparking growing food safety concerns and less transparency in the marketplace. In sum, our corporate controlled food system damages rural communities, local economies, public health and the soil and water needed to sustain food production.

U.S. agriculture suffers from abnormally high levels of concentration, meaning just a handful of corporations control nearly all of our food production, processing, and distribution In a healthy economy, multiple firms can sell their goods to multiple buyers in an open, competitive market.

Most sectors of the U.S. economy have concentration ratios around 40%, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40% of the market. If the concentration ratio is above 40%, economists believe competition is threatened and market abuses are more likely to occur: the higher the number, the bigger the threat. Almost every sector in agriculture is well above these levels.

Unchecked corporate power distorts markets and leaves farmers and ranchers vulnerable to abuse and unfair practices. Because farmers rely on both buyers and sellers for their business, concentrated markets squeeze them at both ends.

Big Agra’s power destroys lives

For years, Monsanto was America’s premiere agricultural multinational, a creator a, among other things, Agent Orange, the carcinogenic, birth defect-inducing weed killers the U.S. military sprayed over Vietnam to deny ground cover to insurgents fighting the American-backed government of South Vietnam.

But the bulk of the profit came form creating crop genetically engineered to resist patented Monsanto herbicides that killed everything else to ensure weed-free fields.

Ignacio Chapela, photograph by esnl.

Research by UC Berkeley microbiologist [and friend of the blog] Ignacio Chapela [previously] and David Quist, established that genes inserted in corn seeds by profit-hungry corporations could spread to the native cultivars, the fountain from which all modern varieties of maize have sprung.

But publication of those findings resulted in a campaign of ad hominem attacks on Chapela and Quist backed by covert Monsanto funding led to an unprecedented retraction by Nature of their published findings, followed by the rejection of tenure for Chapela, despite the overwhelming endorsement of his fellow faculty.

After protests that we covered while reporting for the Berkeley Daily Planet and a subsequent lawsuit, Chapela gained tenure. And it is now widely accepted in plant biology that genes can jump from genetically engineered crops across species lines into other plants — a phenomenon resulting in rapid spread of so-called superweeds resistant to the same herbicides the GMO crops were designed to withstand.

Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide most of Monsanto’s genetically modified crops were designed to resist, was initially touted as safe, though it’s since been linked to some cancers, drawing fierce backlash in the U.S. and Europe as well as costly lawsuits.

Monsanto, one of America’s oldest companies, threw in the towel in 2018, selling itself to German giant Bayer for $63 in addition to an agreement to pay over $12 billion dollars in litigation damages incurred by suits over the controversial plant killer.

A deep look at corporate agricultural power

Early in life I learned there were three basic requisites of life in affition to the air we breather and the waterwe drink: Food, clothing, and shelter, always taught in that order.

Food is the stuff of life, and the earliest form of sacrifice to the gods.

Without it, we can live only a few weeks.

And while early humans ate from the bounty of nature, the discovery of agriculture changed the way we live, leading to the rise of villages, cities, states, and formal government.

But agriculture changed with the first the adoptiion of slavery, and later with the instruments and machines produced y the Industrial Revolution, enabling the creation of massive corporations devoted to both supplying the tools and seeds for farming and buying, processing, and marketing the crops farms produced.

Monsanto was just one example of the corporate Big Agra, a cartel comprising a handful of corporations controlling much of the world’s foods.

In an examination of Big Agra for the plain language, open access academic journal The Conversation, Philip H. Howard, Associate Professor of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University, and Mary Hendrickson, Associate Professor of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia, loo at 21st Century corporate agriculture and its costs to us, we who live off its bounty:

Corporate concentration in the US food system makes food more expensive and less accessible for many Americans

Agribusiness executives and government policymakers often praise the U.S. food system for producing abundant and affordable food. In fact, however, food costs are rising, and shoppers in many parts of the U.S. have limited access to fresh, healthy products.

This isn’t just an academic argument. Even before the current pandemic, millions of people in the U.S. went hungry. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that over 35 million people were “food insecure,” meaning they did not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Now food banks are struggling to feed people who have lost jobs and income thanks to COVID-19.

As rural sociologists, we study changes in food systems and sustainability. We’ve closely followed corporate consolidation of food production, processing and distribution in the U.S. over the past 40 years. In our view, this process is making food less available or affordable for many Americans.

Fewer, larger companies

Consolidation has placed key decisions about our nation’s food system in the hands of a few large companies, giving them outsized influence to lobby policymakers, direct food and industry research and influence media coverage. These corporations also have enormous power to make decisions about what food is produced how, where and by whom, and who gets to eat it. We’ve tracked this trend across the globe.

It began in the 1980s with mergers and acquisitions that left a few large firms dominating nearly every step of the food chain. Among the largest are retailer Walmart, food processor Nestlé and seed/chemical firm Bayer.

Between 1996 and 2013 Monsanto acquired more than 70 seed companies, before the firm was itself acquired by competing seed/chemical firm Bayer in 2018. Click on the image to enlarge.

Some corporate leaders have abused their power – for example, by allying with their few competitors to fix prices. In 2020 Christopher Lischewski, the former president and CEO of Bumblebee Foods, was convicted of conspiracy to fix prices of canned tuna. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison and fined US$100,000.

In the same year, chicken processor Pilgrim’s Pride pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges and was fined $110.5 million. Meatpacking company JBS settled a $24.5 million pork price-fixing lawsuit, and farmers won a class action settlement against peanut-shelling companies Olam and Birdsong.

Industry consolidation is hard to track. Many subsidiary firms often are controlled by one parent corporation and engage in “contract packing,” in which a single processing plant produces identical foods that are then sold under dozens of different brands – including labels that compete directly against each other.

Recalls ordered in response to food-borne disease outbreaks have revealed the broad scope of contracting relationships. Shutdowns at meatpacking plants due to COVID-19 infections among workers have shown how much of the U.S. food supply flows through a small number of facilities.

With consolidation, large supermarket chains have closed many urban and rural stores. This process has left numerous communities with limited food selections and high prices – especially neighborhoods with many low-income, Black or Latino households.

In 2006, the Community Grocery Store in the small town of Walsh, Colorado, avoided going out of business by selling stock to residents. The store is still in business in 2021.

Widespread hunger

As unemployment has risen during the pandemic, so has the number of hungry Americans. Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, estimates that up to 50 million people – including 17 million children – may currently be experiencing food insecurity. Nationwide, demand at food banks grew by over 48% during the first half of 2020.

Simultaneously, disruptions in food supply chains forced farmers to dump milk down the drain, leave produce rotting in fields and euthanize livestock that could not be processed at slaughterhouses. We estimate that between March and May of 2020, farmers disposed of somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 hogs and 2 million chickens – more than 30,000 tons of meat.

What role does concentration play in this situation? Research shows that retail concentration correlates with higher prices for consumers. It also shows that when food systems have fewer production and processing sites, disruptions can have major impacts on supply.

Consolidation makes it easier for any industry to maintain high prices. With few players, companies simply match each other’s price increases rather than competing with them. Concentration in the U.S. food system has raised the costs of everything from breakfast cereal and coffee to beer.

The combined share of sales for the top four firms (CR4) for selected U.S. commodities, food processing/manufacturing and distribution/retail channels. Family Farm Action Alliance, CC BY-ND

As the pandemic roiled the nation’s food system through 2020, consumer food costs rose by 3.4%, compared to 0.4% in 2018 and 0.9% in 2019. We expect retail prices to remain high because they are “sticky,” with a tendency to increase rapidly but to decline more slowly and only partially.

We also believe there could be further supply disruptions. A few months into the pandemic, meat shelves in some U.S. stores sat empty, while some of the nation’s largest processors were exporting record amounts of meat to China. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., cited this imbalance as evidence of the need to crack down on what they called “monopolistic practices” by Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS and Smithfield, which dominate the U.S. meatpacking industry.

Tyson Foods responded that a large portion of its exports were “cuts of meat or portions of the animal that are not desired by” Americans. Store shelves are no longer empty for most cuts of meat, but processing plants remain overbooked, with many scheduling well into 2021.

Toward a more equitable food system

In our view, a resilient food system that feeds everyone can be achieved only through a more equitable distribution of power. This in turn will require action in areas ranging from contract law and antitrust policy to workers’ rights and economic development. Farmers, workers, elected officials and communities will have to work together to fashion alternatives and change policies.

The goal should be to produce more locally sourced food with shorter and less-centralized supply chains. Detroit offers an example. Over the past 50 years, food producers there have established more than 1,900 urban farms and gardens. A planned community-owned food co-op will serve the city’s North End, whose residents are predominantly low- and moderate-income and African American.

The federal government can help by adapting farm support programs to target farms and businesses that serve local and regional markets. State and federal incentives can build community- or cooperative-owned farms and processing and distribution businesses. Ventures like these could provide economic development opportunities while making the food system more resilient.

In our view, the best solutions will come from listening to and working with the people most affected: sustainable farmers, farm and food service workers, entrepreneurs and cooperators – and ultimately, the people whom they feed.

ToonTime: The Grate-est Show on Earth


The Impeachment Show, to be precise

We begin with the Lexington Herald Leader:

Joel Pett: The MAGA mob GOP politicians fear most

The Charlotte Observer eyes the panel:

Kevin Siers: Jury of His Peers

The Chattanooga Times Free Press offers a similar take:

Clay Bennett: The Jury

The Salt Lake Tribune also weighs in on the GOP’s deciders:

Pat Bagley: Checking One’s Soul at the Door

And the Las Vegas Sun covers the inevitable:

Mike Smith: You knew it was coming

Next up, the Baton Rouge Advocate:

Walt Handelsman: Trump Legal Advice

The Minneapolis Star Tribune covers Trump’s case:

Steve Sack: Trump’s defense

And a Twitter toon lends an ear:

Michael de Adder: Knocking on the door

On to the Washington Post:

Ann Telnaes: Sketches of the second Trump impeachment trial

Followed by this, via Twitter:

Ed Hall: Go tell the Spartans

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, an origins story:

Mike Luckovich: Where they came from

From the Chicago Tribune, an ongoing problem for the GOP:

Joe Fournier: Quelling QAnon

Finally, via the Arizona Mirror:

Steve Benson: Pillow Talk

Ann academic makes the case for impeachment


The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump rests on a single charge, the incitement of resurrection, conviction of which would forever bar Donald Trump from holding public office:

The Constitution provides that the House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment” and that the President “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. Further, section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits any person who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against” the United States from “hold[ing] any office … under the United States”. In his conduct while President of the United States—and in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed—Donald John Trump engaged in high Crimes and Misdemeanors by inciting violence against the Government of the United States, in that:

Kurt Braddock, Assistant Professor of Public Communication of the American University School of Communication, makes the prosecution’s case in an essay for the open source, plain-language academic journal The Conversation:

Trump impeachment trial: Decades of research show language can incite violence

Senators, acting in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, will soon have to decide whether to convict the former president for inciting a deadly, violent insurrection at the Capitol building on Jan. 6.

A majority of House members, including 10 Republicans, took the first step in the two-step impeachment process in January. They voted to impeach Trump, for “incitement of insurrection.” Their resolution states that he “willfully made statements that, in context, encourage – and foreseeably resulted in – lawless action at the Capitol, such as: ‘if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.’”

Impeachment proceedings that consider incitement to insurrection are rare in American history. Yet dozens of legislators – including some Republicans – say that Trump’s actions leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol contributed to an attempted insurrection against American democracy itself.

Such claims against Trump are complicated. Rather than wage direct war against sitting U.S. representatives, Trump is accused of using language to motivate others to do so. Some have countered that the connection between President Trump’s words and the violence of Jan. 6 is too tenuous, too abstract, too indirect to be considered viable.

However, decades of research on social influence, persuasion and psychology show that the messages that people encounter heavily influence their decisions to engage in certain behaviors.

How it works

The research shows that the messages people consume affect their behaviors in three ways.

First, when a person encounters a message that advocates a behavior, that person is likely to believe that the behavior will have positive results. This is particularly true if the speaker of that message is liked or trusted by the target of the message.

Second, when these messages communicate positive beliefs or attitudes about a behavior – as when our friends told us that smoking was “cool” when we were teenagers – message targets come to believe that those they care about would approve of their engaging in the behavior or would engage in the behavior themselves.

Finally, when those messages contain language that highlights the target’s ability to perform a behavior, as when a president tells raucous supporters that they have the power to overturn an election, they develop the belief that they can actually carry out that behavior.

Consider something we have all encountered in a more lighthearted context – messages designed to motivate exercise. These messages often tell us one (or more) of three things. They tell us that exercise will lead to positive outcomes – “You will get physically fit!” They tell us that others exercise or would approve of our taking part in exercise – “Work out with a friend!” And they tell us that it is within our power to begin an exercise program – “Anybody can do it!”

In this context, these messages are likely to increase the message target’s likelihood of exercising.

Unfortunately, as we saw on Jan. 6, these principles of persuasion apply to less benign behaviors as well.

How Trump did it

Now let us return to what happened in Washington on Jan. 6.

Even in the weeks before the election, Trump’s rhetoric was belligerent. His campaign solicited supporters to “enlist” in the “Army for Trump” to help reelect him. Following the election and in the lead-up to the attack on the Capitol, President Trump made repeated false claims of election fraud, arguing that something needed to be done to remedy the alleged fraud. His language often took an aggressive tone, suggesting that his supporters must “fight” to preserve the integrity of the election.

By inundating his supporters with these lies, Trump made two key beliefs acceptable to his followers. First, that aggression against those accused of trying to undermine his “victory” is an acceptable and useful means of political action. Second, that aggressive, possibly violent attitudes against Trump’s political adversaries are common among all his supporters.

Words have consequences

In the weeks following the election, allies of President Trump, including Rudy Giuliani, Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and others, only reinforced these beliefs among Trump supporters by perpetuating his lies.

With these beliefs and attitudes in place, Trump’s Jan. 6 speech outside the White House served as a key accelerant to the attack by sparking the raucous crowd to action.

In his pre-attack speech, Trump said that he and his followers should “fight like hell” against “bad people.” He said that they would “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” to give Republican legislators the boldness they need to “take back the country.” He said that “this is a time for strength” and that the crowd was beholden to “very different rules” than would normally be called for.

Less than two hours after these words were spoken, violent insurrectionists and domestic terrorists breached the Capitol.

In the case of Donald Trump, the relationship between words and actions never seems clear. But make no mistake, there is a scientifically valid case for incitement.

Decades of research have demonstrated that language affects our behaviors – words have consequences. And when those words champion aggression, make violence acceptable and embolden audiences to action, incidents like the insurrection at the Capitol are the result.

QAnon membership surged in Germany in 2020


QAnon might seem a uniquely American group, with its reliance on the purported leaks of an American intelligence insider and its virulent espousal of Trumpism, but the movement has found fertile soil in Germany, a nation with a dark legacy of political capture by the 20th Centuries most infamous white nationalist regime.

The movement’s grew five-fold in Germany over the course of the past year, and there’s no sign that the surge has ended.

From an investigation by Deutsche Welle:

Prior to 2020, the QAnon movement was largely considered a niche phenomenon in Germany. But within a year, Germany has become home to the largest QAnon community outside of the English-speaking world.

The German government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, such as lockdowns and social distancing measures, prompted QAnon influencers and far-right sympathizers to stoke fear and propagate the movement’s conspiracy theories on social media platforms.

The Dubai-based messenger service Telegram became particularly popular among QAnon supporters, largely as a result of its lax policy towards cracking down on extremist content.

In December, the Berlin-based Amadeu Antonio Foundation found that German QAnon groups and channels hosted on Telegram had experienced significant growth during the first lockdown of the pandemic in March 2020. 

Back then, Qlobal — now today’s largest German-language QAnon channel — had roughly 21,000 subscribers. Three months after, it had garnered more than 110,000 users. The channel now boasts more than 160,000 followers, with other QAnon groups and channels mirroring the rise in interest.

According to estimates provided by the Amadeo Antonio Foundation, there are at least 150,000 QAnon followers in Germany — and that figure is steadily rising. However, gauging the size of the QAnon community is difficult, largely because estimates lean on public online engagement.

While the coronavirus might be the biggest threat in the short term, the mental virus that is QAnon may well pose an even bigger threat in the long run as it spreads its way through social media.

Charts of the day: Amidst COVID, food prices soar


As COVID burns its way through the world, there’s more bad news: Food prices are soaring

From the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, two charts the trends.

First up, trends across food categories compared with years past:

Nest, a look at specific categories and their recent price trends:

More from the FAO report [emphasis added], with the greatest rise in the price of cereals [and they’re not what you might think]:

The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 113.3 points in January 2021, 4.7 points (4.3 percent) higher than in December 2020, not only marking the eighth month of consecutive rise but also registering its highest monthly average since July 2014. The latest increase reflected strong gains in the sugar, cereals and vegetable oils sub-indices, while meat and dairy values were also up but to a lesser extent.

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 124.2 points in January, marking a sharp increase of 8.3 points (7.1 percent) from December and the seventh consecutive monthly rise. International maize prices increased significantly, surging by 11.2 percent in January, up 42.3 percent above their January 2020 level, reflecting increasingly tight global supply with lower-than-earlier-expected production and stock estimates in the United States of America and substantial purchases by China. Concerns over dryness in South America and a temporary suspension of maize export registrations in Argentina added support, pushing international maize prices up to their highest level since mid-2013. Among other coarse grains, barley prices also increased in January, by 6.9 percent, supported by firmer demand and price rises for maize, wheat and soybeans, while sorghum prices remained stable. Wheat prices also registered strong increases in January, up by 6.8 percent, influenced by the strength in maize prices as well as strong global demand and expectations of reduced sales by the Russian Federation from March 2021, when the wheat export duty will double. As for rice, robust demand from Asian and African buyers, combined with tight supplies in Thailand and Viet Nam, continued to underpin export prices in January.

The spike in cereal prices is especially troublesome, given that cereals are the basis of diets of most of the world’s poorest.

Climate-fueled wildfires threaten mental health


As we discovered soon after we first started reporting in the Golden State, three stories are perennials on the West Coast, catastrophes certain to recur throughout a journalist’s career: Wildfires, earthquakes, and mudslides.

And of the three, it’s wildfires that are getting worse as the wildfire season has lengthened by nearly a month since the 1960s as climate change makes California hotter and drier.

Consider this telling graphic from the 4 December San Francisco Chronicle:

Wildfires spur chronic mental health woes

For various newspapers where I’ve worked, I’ve had many opportunities to interview people impacted by disasters, and the one thing most of them talk about after recounting their relief at surviving as a deep sense of loss, a loss inclusive of both material possessions and psychological security.

The loss of photo albums and mementos is literally a loss of the past, and a loss of the sense of security that comes with the loss of home and all its comforting associations can be devastating.

And now a new study reveals that, for many, the psychic loss from California wildfires continues long after the flames have been extinguished,

From the University of California — San Diego:

Poorer Mental Health Smolders After Deadly, Devastating Wildfire

In 2018, a faulty electric transmission line ignited the Camp Fire in Northern California, ultimately consuming 239 square miles and several communities, including the town of Paradise, which was 95 percent destroyed. At least 85 people died.

Structures have been rebuilt, but some things are worse. In a paper published February 2, 2021 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, scientists at University of California San Diego, with colleagues elsewhere, describe chronic mental health problems among some residents who experienced the Camp Fire in varying degrees.

Direct exposure to large-scale fires significantly increased the risk for mental health disorders, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, the scientists wrote.

“We looked for symptoms of these particular disorders because emotionally traumatic events in one’s lifetime are known to trigger them,” said senior author Jyoti Mishra, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of the Neural Engineering and Translation Labs at UC San Diego. Pre-existing childhood trauma or sleep disturbances were found to exacerbate mental health problems, but factors like personal resilience and mindfulness appeared to reduce them.

“We show climate change as a chronic mental health stressor. It is not like the pandemic, in that it is here for a period of time and can be mitigated with vaccines and other measures. Climate change is our future, and we need immediate action to slow down the changes being wreaked upon the planet, and on our own wellbeing.”

Mishra, with collaborators at California State University, Chico and University of South Carolina, conducted a variety of mental health assessments on residents who had been exposed to the Camp Fire six months after the wildfire and those much farther away. Roughly two-thirds of those tested were residents who lived in or around Chico, a Northern California city located approximately 10 to 15 miles of the center of the Camp Fire. The remaining third were San Diego residents living approximately 600 miles from the wildfire and presumably unimpacted.

The researchers found that the Northern California residents experienced measurable increases in PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders, which were worsened by proximity and exposure to the Camp Fire or by previous adverse experiences involving childhood trauma, such as abuse and neglect.

Chronic mental health problems fanned by the wild fire were ameliorated, however, by physical exercise, mindfulness and emotional support, all of which may contribute to personal resilience and the ability to bounce back after stressful life events.

The worrisome thing is that stressful life events like the Camp Fire are becoming more frequent, due to climate change, said study co-author Veerabhadaran Ramanathan, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

“Since the 1970s, fire extent in California has increased by 400 percent,” said Ramanathan. “While a faulty transmission line may have lit the Camp Fire in 2018, it is part of an overall disastrous multi-decadal trend fueled by human-caused climate warming. Through evaporative drying of the air, the soil and the trees, warming acts as a force multiplier. By 2030, the warming is likely to amplify by 50 percent. This surprising, if not shocking, study identifies mental illness as a grave risk for the coming decades.”

Not just in California, but the world, write the authors.

“Unchecked climate change projected for the latter half of this century may severely impact the mental wellbeing of the global population. We must find ways to foster individual resiliency,” wrote the study authors.

Co-authors include: Saria Silveira and Gillian Grennan,

Now add the impact of a lethal pandemic, and we suspect conditions are significantly worse than for the period covered by the study.