Political misinformation has always existed, but scale matters

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In October of last year, the New York Post dropped what looked like a bombshell story, in the middle of the runup to the presidential election. It alleged that a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter had been found in a repair shop, and that emails taken from this laptop allegedly implicated the Bidens in an influence scheme in Ukraine. The story started to weaken under close scrutiny, however: the owner of the repair shop contradicted himself and referenced conspiracy theories in an interview, the emails made their way to the Post via some questionable sources — former Trump advisor Steve Bannon and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani — and the story was co-written by a former producer on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program, in her first published article.

In his Sunday media column, Ben Smith, the media writer for the New York Times, noted that this story was used in a session about misinformation that Harvard’s Shorenstein Center held recently for media executives. Although Twitter and Facebook blocked or restricted the spread of Biden laptop story out of concern that it might be misinformation, Smith argued the Post report was just “an old-fashioned, politically motivated dirty tricks campaign,” and that describing it as misinformation doesn’t add much to our understanding of it. Misinformation is “a technocratic solution to a problem that’s as much about politics as technology,” he said, and a reporter’s job isn’t to “put neat labels on the news. It’s to report out what’s actually happening, as messy and unsatisfying as that can be.”

In questioning the desire to label things as misinformation, Smith is in sync with some other critics, including BuzzFeed writer Joe Bernstein, who wrote a recent piece for Harper‘s magazine (which Smith linked to in his column) about the movement he calls “Big Disinfo.” Believers, he argues, want users of social-media platforms to think they are gullible rubes who are being manipulated by social targeting and advertising algorithms. The terms misinformation and disinformation, he says, “are used casually and interchangeably to refer to an enormous range of content, ranging from well-worn scams to viral news aggregation.” Bernstein argues that these terms are often just jargon that means “things I disagree with” (I spoke with Bernstein about his piece and some of the conclusions he reached in a discussion on CJR’s Galley platform).

Continue reading “Political misinformation has always existed, but scale matters”

My first website — or one of them, anyway

I was looking through some files I had stashed in a backup folder on an old hard drive, and I came across an almost complete reproduction of one of my first websites, which I hand-coded in an HTML editor around 2003 or so. It was called “A Complete Waste of Time,” and most of what it contained was links to weird Internet sites and pages that I collected at the time (and still do, in case you come across any). But it also had indexes of useful pages as well, including a lot of media-related links, and a lot of financial links — stock-quote sites, etc. — because at the time I was the business columnist for the website of the Globe and Mail, a daily national newspaper based in Toronto.

The first “live” version of the Globe‘s website had just launched in 2000, and I was one of a team of about seven or eight people who worked for it, in a separate area on the third floor. This was around the time I discovered “blogs,” and started my own, which would gradually evolve into the site you’re on now. At the time, the Globe had put all of its columnists behind a paywall, which cut my readership by about 90 percent, but at some point it dawned on me that a blog could be like a column — but with more interactivity — and it wasn’t behind a paywall!

Continue reading “My first website — or one of them, anyway”

Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch and the golden years of British folk

I regret to say that I was unaware of either Sandy Denny — former singer with the Fairport Convention — or Anne Briggs, or finger-style folk guitarist Bert Jansch, but I have rectified that thanks to Max Read and his excellent newsletter:

I started getting into this stuff a few years ago, after hearing Sandy Denny’s incredibly beautiful “False Bride,” from 1967, and falling in love with her voice. Denny, a former nurse, started singing on England’s folk-club circuit in the mid-1960s; she rose to become the leading vocalist of English folk-rock music — no mean feat in a staggering generation of talent that also included Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins, June Tabor, and Maddy Prior. She died in 1978, apparently from a fall, after struggling with alcohol addiction.

I tend to associate Denny with fall, maybe because her favorite themes as a songwriter were passing time, changing seasons, and growing darkness. Though the seasonally appropriate original here is “Late November,” my favorite Sandy song is the gorgeous, bitter “Blackwaterside” she recorded live at the Paris Theatre for the BBC in 1972, which can be listened to at 16:25 below. It’s the story of a woman seduced and discarded by an man she meets on the banks of the River Blackwater

The Greatest Unsolved Heist in Irish History

King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, and Princess Victoria were due to visit on July 10, to make an appearance at the exhibition and perform some various royal duties. The political relationship between Ireland and Great Britain was fraught, with a rising tide of Irish nationalism competing with unionists who wanted to remain loyal to the Crown. There had already been debate about how Irish—or British—the International Exhibition should be. (There were separate pavilions for Ireland and Great Britain; the Irish War of Independence would erupt just over a decade later.) On top of that, the king’s nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, had just months before endured a massive political scandal. King Edward was sensitive to controversy. He needed this visit to go smoothly.

It did not go smoothly.

Four days before the king was due to arrive in Dublin, the jewels went missing. The story of this theft would eventually involve a sex scandal, conspiracies that pointed the finger at both sides of the political spectrum, the occult, drunken pranks, bankrupt celebrities, sham trials, and an incredibly effective hush campaign from the top rung of the political ladder. The jewels have never been recovered.

Via: The Greatest Unsolved Heist in Irish History – Atlas Obscura

Is Thomas Pynchon tweeting his Hollywood memories?

Some people with way too much time on their hands have apparently come up with a theory that legendary author and semi-recluse Thomas Pynchon is on Twitter, posting gossip and memories of Hollywood in the 1970s in the guise of a fictional producer-director named Sam Harpoon, who happens to be a character with a bit part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie “Licorice Pizza.”

From Reddit:

“It’s fairly obvious this is a legit account – it’s followed by most of the cast/crew from the film, as well as other directors like Rian Johnson and the Safdie Brothers (one of which stars in the film). […] Besides these tweets all reading exactly like Pynchon – the account also has an odd number of references to his work, including an homage to the 50th anniversary of Gravity’s Rainbow in his Twitter bio. […] We know TP and PTA are friends, and him secretly tweeting a micro novel’s worth of fictional 70’s film history feels so Pynchonesque I can’t help but believe it’s him.”

P.S. I got all of this from Max Read’s excellent newsletter, which you can find here.

The true story behind TV’s strangest space Jew

Eight years ago, Atlantic writer Yair Rosenberg started trying to figure out why an obviously Jewish character suddenly showed up in a minor role in the science-fiction show Firefly, but no one in the show ever mentioned the fact that he was Jewish. He wound up interviewing the actor who played the character, who said the role triggered a desire to learn more about Judaism, and finally tracked down the producer to find out why the show chose to make the character Jewish.

I also learned from this piece that the term “Kwisatz Haderach,” which author Frank Herbert used in Dune to refer to Paul Atreides and the myth of a messiah, is a transliteration of a Jewish term, term kefitzat haderech (קפיצת הדרך), which means the “shortening of the way” or “leaping of the path.” As Rosenberg describes it, “the messiah, in other words, is the one who propels humanity forward to its ultimate destination.”

Jodorowsky’s version of Dune would have been completely mental

Denis Villeneuve’s movie version of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune is just the latest attempt to put the epic story on screen. The weirdest version by far — one that never actually made it to theatres — was one imagined by avant-garde Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1975:

Jodorowsky planned to film the story as a 10-hour feature, set to star his own son Brontis Jodorowsky in the lead role of Paul Atreides, Salvador Dalí as the Emperor, Amanda Lear as Princess Irulan, Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Gloria Swanson as the Reverend Mother, David Carradine as Duke Leto Atreides, Hervé Villechaize as Gurney Halleck, and Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha. The soundtrack was to be provided by Pink Floyd. Art was to be done by Jean Giraud, a French artist known as Moebius, and H. R. Giger.

Dalí was cast as the Emperor, but demanded to be paid $100,000 an hour. Jodorowsky agreed, but tailored Dalí’s part to be filmed in one hour, drafting plans for other scenes of the emperor to use a mechanical mannequin as substitute. According to Giger, Dalí was “later invited to leave the film because of his pro-Franco statements”. Frank Herbert traveled to Europe in 1976 to find that $2 million of the $9.5 million budget had already been spent in pre-production, and that Jodorowsky’s script would result in a 14-hour movie.

Update: Jodorowsky’s storyboards for his version of Dune are back in the news as a result of a staggeringly dumb project started by a group of crypto types, who formed something called the SpiceDAO (DAO stands for decentralized autonomous organization, something the blockchain is supposed to enable) and raised close to $12 million. They then used about $3 million of that amount to buy a copy of Jodorowsky’s storyboards — for what appears to be about 100 times what the book was expected to fetch, since there are multiple copies out there. They seem to have done this under the mistaken impression that buying the book would allow them to make an animated TV show based on it, and other works. Of course, buying the book does no such thing, since the family of Frank Herbert and/or his publisher still own all such rights.


So what happens now to the $3 million the DAO spent on the book, not to mention all those other millions the groups raised? Great question. Unknown! There are some signs that the organizers of the group may actually know that buying the book doesn’t really give them the right to do anything related to Dune. So then why buy it? Another good question. The group’s Medium post states:

Jodorowsky’s expansive vision for Dune in some way planted the seeds for nearly every Sci-Fi project over the last 50 years. While we do not own the IP to Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, we are uniquely positioned with the opportunity to create our own addition to the genre as an homage to the giants who came before us.

And then, another update — the group has failed to get anywhere in negotiations with any of the rightsholders related to the Jodorowsky treatment of Dune, so now it seems they will try to create something unrelated:

What we do know is that there seems to be an awful lot of money sloshing around out there in the crypto-verse, and there appear to be a lot of people trying to use that money for off-the-wall projects — such as the attempt by another DAO to acquire a copy of the US constitution, for which they raised about $47 million, and then ultimately failed to win the auction, and now seem to be having problems figuring out how to give people their money back. This Vice headline said it best: ‘Buy the Constitution’ Aftermath: Everyone Very Mad, Confused, Losing Lots of Money, Fighting, Crying, Etc.

The astronomer Tycho Brahe had a nose made of gold and a pet moose

Tycho Brahe, who lived from 1546-1601, is one of the most famous early astronomers — his scientific accomplishments include the discovery of the supernova in 1572, and a series of essays on the movement of comets (he also carried on a notoriously heated feud with Galileo). But he was also famously eccentric:

A fabulously wealthy man of noble birth, Brahe once owned roughly one percent of all the money in Denmark, and often elected to use his personal treasury to fund some rather unusual projects. For instance, after losing his nose in a duel while intoxicated in 1566, Brahe purchased a replacement made of a gold-silver alloy rather than more conventional wax (he always made sure to carry a small vial of paste around with him to reattach the orifice should it pop off). He also hired a dwarf named Jepp, whom he believed to be clairvoyant, as his court jester … and asked him to eat under the table during each meal).

At one point, Brahe also owned a pet moose, which was hardly a normal thing in 6th-century Europe.

The hoofed critter would trot alongside Brahe’s carriage like a loyal dog and lived inside his castle. But, unfortunately, it also appears to have developed a regrettable taste for Danish beer. Naturally, Brahe couldn’t resist showing off such a bizarre young animal to his various associates and, soon enough, a nearby nobleman had asked him to send the moose to his castle to entertain the guests at a party. As the dinner wore on, the creature grew increasingly tipsy until it eventually wound up roaring drunk. According to Brahe’s biographer Pierre Gassendi, “the moose had ascended the castle stairs and drunk of the beer in such amounts that it had fallen down [them]” to its eventual demise.

via Mental Floss