Thursday, February 22, 2018

Best defense against Russia's lies: `Consider the source' -- Feb. 22, 2018 column


The Russians are coming – for real. And they’ll meddle in our November elections.

After all, it worked for them in 2016.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee Feb. 13.

“We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” Coats said.

Even President Donald Trump now concedes Russians interfered in the last presidential election, though he still cannot bring himself to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Authorities agree there’s no evidence vote tallies were altered, but it’s impossible to know how many minds were changed.

Russia’s goal is to sow fear, distrust, discord and divisiveness in America and elsewhere and restore Russia’s role as a world power, experts say. Russians have been successfully pushing our emotional buttons for years, using social media.

Most recently, after the massacre in Parkland, Florida, they used #guncontrolnow and #gunreformnow to stir the pot. They used similar tactics following the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas.

Russians began posing as Americans in social media, creating false stories and spewing tweets, in 2014. These were trial runs to see how much they could get Americans to believe, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday after an extensive investigation.

We take the bait -- as the tale of the tainted turkey demonstrates.

Around Thanksgiving 2015, someone claiming to be Alice Norton, a 31-year-old mother of two in New York City, wrote on a cooking website forum that her whole family had gotten food poisoning from a Walmart turkey. Twitter repeated the claim thousands of time, and a news story reported 200 people were in critical condition at hospitals.

The story was a hoax. There was no such outbreak of food poisoning, the Journal reported. The claims were linked to a Kremlin propaganda agency charged with meddling in U.S. elections by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The tainted turkey was just one of several fictitious events Russian propagandists manufactured before they moved on to support Trump and Bernie Sanders while disparaging Hillary Clinton, the Journal said.

The United States continues to be “under attack” by those who want to create cyber disruption, Coats and other intelligence officials warned. Our response?

“We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing. “We still do not have a plan.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a Cyber-Digital Task Force Tuesday to study what the Justice Department is doing to combat global security threats. Interference in our elections is one priority.  

That’s good, as far as it goes.

Social media companies are shutting down Russian bots, the automated accounts that flood tweets and posts, but as soon as one account is gone, others pop up.  

If we can’t rely on the government or corporations to stop the flow of misinformation by November, if ever, what can we do?  

Three words: Consider the source.

That’s what my mother said when I was a child and a bully said or did something ugly. Consider the source means don’t pay attention to someone whose opinion doesn’t matter.

Now more than ever we need to know if the source of information is credible. Don’t rely on Wikipedia or your friends to have their facts straight.

To recognize bots, experts suggest checking an account’s bio and profile picture. If the language is odd, if you Google the image and find it all over the Internet, if the “person” tweets more than seems humanly possible – move on. Don’t share it.  

We need to cultivate more good old American skepticism. Propaganda works because it plays to our existing distrust and divisions. Recognize when you love or hate something online it may be because it confirms your bias. We all have them.

This election year, look before you retweet. Don’t be played for a sucker.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

George Washington's rules inspire search for civility -- Feb. 15, 2018 column


In the entertaining novel, “Rules of Civility,” about 20-somethings in glamorous, 1930s New York, the enigmatic Tinker Grey keeps with him a much-underlined copy of George Washington’s rules of proper behavior.

Tinker aspires to the refined life the rules represent, though narrator Katey scoffs that the rules are “A do-it-yourself charm school. A sort of How to Win Friends and Influence People 150 years ahead of its time.”

You’ll have to read Amor Towles’s novel to see how it turns out – and you should. A welcome escape from today’s news, it was published in 2011, became a New York Times bestseller and Wall Street Journal best book of the year, and has been published in more than 15 languages.

And, besides, all 110 of Washington’s rules appear in the novel’s appendix, with the quirky spelling, punctuation and capitalization preserved. Anyone can benefit from an acquaintance with “Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”

Washington didn’t dream up the rules or even compile them. The Jesuits composed the rules about 1595 and they were translated into English about 1640. Washington wrote them out as a penmanship lesson before he was 16.

Biographers say Washington was self-conscious about his lack of a gentleman’s education and took the rules so seriously they helped form his character.
Many concern table manners, such as “Take no Salt or cut Bread with your Knife Greasy” (Rule 92) and some personal dress: “Wear not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty but See they are Brush’d once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any Uncleaness” (51).

Others speak to personal conduct: “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad Company” (56).

And some offer sage advice on public discourse. “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern” (58).

And, “Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly” (73).

As we celebrate Washington’s 286th birthday on Presidents Day on Monday, more Americans lament the loss of civility.

“There is more civility in a death penalty case than there is in some congressional hearings,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, told Politico.

Gowdy, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and a former federal prosecutor, announced Jan. 31 he’s leaving Congress and politics after this term to return to the justice system.  

After a congressman was shot and gravely wounded last summer in Alexandria during practice for a congressional baseball game, members of Congress from both parties pledged to be more civil.

A bipartisan group of House members proposed a National Civility Day to remind people that “civility involves being nice or polite to others and treating others with respect.” The bill has gone nowhere.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, weighing in on our toxic politics, suggested a solution in a video: “We control our own actions. Let’s be more civil. Let’s improve our tone.”

Many people blame President Donald Trump and his barnyard vocabulary for the coarsening of the culture, and his insults and name-calling certainly hurt the cause of civility. Trump, as usual, blames the news media.

“I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” he told reporters last fall.
If Trump had read Washington’s rules, he’d know: “Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile” (49), “Be not hasty to beleive flying Reports to the Disparagement of any” (50) and “Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.” (79)

Anyone can read Washington’s rules on “Every action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present” (Rule 1) and “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience” (110) are worthy goals.

And if, while on Mount Vernon’s website, you happen onto an annoying Page Not Found 404 error, you’ll find “Rules of Civility #404: `When confronted by a missing web page do not gnash thy teeth, but rather press forward with a fine countenance towards the next available page.’”

Sound advice. Washington would approve.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

What would Lincoln say? Hot tweets not cool -- Feb. 8, 2018 column


If there’s a president Donald Trump admires more than himself, it must be “the late, great Abraham Lincoln.”

“With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office,” Trump told a rally last summer.

“Great president,” Trump said of Lincoln last year at a dinner for House Republicans. “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican. Right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that. We have to build that up a little more.”

For the record, Republicans call themselves the party of Lincoln, and polls show most Americans know Lincoln was a Republican. 

Lincoln’s 209th birthday will be Monday, but you might miss it. It’s not a federal or even a state holiday most places.

Only Illinois, Connecticut, Missouri and New York still observe it in February, according to the National Constitution Center. Indiana, oddly, celebrates Lincoln’s birthday the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Tourists who happen by the Lincoln Memorial at noon Monday will find a free ceremony open to the public with music, speeches and wreaths. At the Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucky, park staff will lay a wreath.

The following Monday, the third Monday in February, is the federal holiday that commemorates George Washington’s birthday. Congress never officially changed the name, though the holiday became known as Presidents Day.  

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY Abraham Lincoln!!!” Trump shouted via Instagram last year with a picture of the Lincoln Memorial and what was supposed to be a quotation from Lincoln: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

But those were not Lincoln’s words. The quotation came from an advertisement for a self-help book on aging in 1947, fact checkers reported.

There is a way Trump can honor the 16th president that has nothing to do with capital letters, exclamation points or fake quotes, however. He can learn from Lincoln the brilliance of the unsent letter.

It’s a lesson any of us can apply in our “Tweet First, Think Later” age. 

When he was angry, Lincoln’s ritual was to write a letter venting his feelings and put the hot letter aside until he cooled off, when he would decide not to send it.

A famous example is his letter to Gen. George Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Although the Union Army was victorious, Meade had let Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his army get away.

“I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would . . . have ended the war,” the president wrote Meade.

“As it is the war will be prolonged indefinitely…Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it,” said the anguished commander in chief.

Lincoln knew the power of his words and chose not to demoralize his general in the field. The letter was found decades later among other Lincoln papers, with a notation that it was never signed or sent.

“Now obviously the opposite of that is when President Trump gets angry with somebody, that tweet goes out immediately,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Jan. 24 in an interview.

“I sometimes think if only he had a hot tweet and a cool tweet, maybe things would be a lot better,” said Goodwin, author of “Team of Rivals” about the political genius of Lincoln in choosing political rivals for his Cabinet.

Lincoln was a master of communication in his time; his Gettysburg Address is recited to this day. Trump is the first president to master social media. But neither Trump nor anyone else could remember the content of his impulsive tweets, as ephemeral as his moods.

On Lincoln’s birthday, we can all be glad Trump admires the president historians consistently rate the best in history.

But if he truly wishes to honor Honest Abe, he – and we -- should stop and think before we fire off that hot tweet.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ask not for whom the toll tolls -- Feb. 1, 2018 column


President Donald Trump waxed almost-poetic in his State of the Union speech about rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

“Together, we can reclaim our great building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways, all across our land,” he said Tuesday night.

Sounds good, but don’t let the bling distract you. Somebody has to pay for those gleaming new roads. Don’t be surprised if tolls are the price of convenience and safety.

In Northern Virginia, you could buy a nice restaurant meal for what it costs to drive alone for a few miles at rush hour.

Solo motorists who hopped on I-66 at 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 24, a Wednesday, paid $46.75 in tolls to drive from Washington’s Beltway to Rosslyn or Washington – a trip of nine miles.

The toll was among the highest since Dec. 4, when tolls began on the express lanes, radio station WTOP reported, adding the Virginia Department of Transportation, which owns and operates the express lanes, says the system is working as designed.

Under what’s called dynamic pricing, tolls change every six minutes, rising to discourage drivers from using the lanes to keep traffic flowing. Tolls vary quite a bit. The estimated toll at 8:30 a.m. Thursday for a solo driver going the same nine miles was $22.25.

Those traveling with two or more people still ride free, but all solo drivers must pay, even those in hybrid vehicles or en route to or from Dulles International Airport. Express lane toll hours on I-66 inside the Beltway are 3 to 7 p.m. westbound and 5:30 to 9:30 a.m. eastbound Monday through Friday.

Efforts are underway in the Virginia General Assembly to limit I-66 tolls. If Congress goes along with Trump’s infrastructure plan, though, motorists can expect more tolls down the road, so to speak.  

Infrastructure is supposed to be an area of bipartisan support, but as usual the devil is in the . . . politics.

President Barack Obama tried repeatedly to pass infrastructure bills, only to hit Republican roadblocks. Trump has been talking about his big infrastructure plans since the campaign.

When Hillary Clinton proposed $275 billion in federal infrastructure spending over five years, Trump saw her bid and more than doubled it.

“Her number is a fraction of what we’re talking about,” Trump said in an August 2016 interview with Fox Business. “I would say at least double her numbers, but you’re going to really need a lot more than that.”

Trump urged Congress Tuesday to work together to pass a bill for “at least $1.5 trillion” for infrastructure. Details will be released in coming weeks, but the administration is expected to propose contributing $200 billion in federal funds over 10 years and to leverage the rest from state and local governments and the private sector.

Now Democrats are balking.

“A nothing burger” is how Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, described Trump’s infrastructure remarks.

“President Trump cannot pretend to solve our infrastructure woes by slashing real investments to states and local governments, pushing the responsibility off federal balance sheets, cutting existing transportation programs to pay for Wall Street and foreign investors to toll our roads, and gutting bedrock environmental protections,” DeFazio said in a statement.

A leaked memo of principles for the administration’s infrastructure bill, obtained by The Hill newspaper, contends states should be given the “flexibility” to collect tolls and use the revenue to invest in infrastructure projects. States were banned from tolling on interstates in 1956, with some exceptions for states already collecting tolls on some highways.

But the trucking industry and other transportation groups object to higher tolls. The memo didn’t mention raising the gas tax, which has not increased since 1993.

“If Trump relies on the private sector and forcing states and localities to come up with their own funding, Trump’s infrastructure plan could result in a patchwork of tolls that span coast to coast,” said Stephanie Kane, spokesperson for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, in a statement.

Everybody likes the idea of gleaming new roads and safer bridges, and nobody enjoys paying tolls. Don’t spend your tax cut just yet. You may need it.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.