Activision Blizzard Hires Bush-Era Torture Apologist As Chief Compliance Officer

Illustration for article titled Activision Blizzard Hires Bush-Era Torture Apologist As Chief Compliance Officer

Photo: Lukas Schulze (Getty Images)

Activision Blizzard announced yesterday that Frances F. Townsend, a former George W. Bush-era counterterrorism appointee and torture apologist, would become its new head of compliance, in charge of making sure the company doesn’t run afoul of the varying laws and regulations throughout all of the countries the Call of Duty maker does business in.

According to an interview with the Wall Street Journal, two of Townsend’s big focuses will be on player data privacy and monitoring the evolving regulations around things like loot boxes. “[I]t’s important that we are involved in the conversation as regulations are being considered,” she said. “Often legislators are legislating on things they’re not entirely familiar with, and when they do that, it can have consequences that they didn’t intend.”

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who made almost $100 million in bonuses over the past four years, called Townsend a “highly regarded public servant” in a press release yesterday, while the newly appointed compliance officer called Kotick a “transformational leader.”

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Townsend began her career in politics as a prosecutor, promoted to the Southern District of New York by Rudolph Giuliani in the late 1980s before moving to the Justice Department, where she worked throughout the Bill Clinton administration. When Bush took over she was eventually tapped to be the “top White House adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security.” This position made her one of the faces of the Bush administration’s heinous and disastrous “war on terror.”

She was one of the big boosters behind raising the national “terror threat level” during Bush’s close 2004 re-election campaign based on three-year old evidence, a decision then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge later said he was politically pressured into making. The then-head of Abu Ghraib prison where people were tortured said he felt similarly pressured to increase the amount of intelligence coming out of the interrogations following a visit by Townsend.

“[Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan], the top military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, described ‘instances where I feel that there was additional pressure’ to get information from detainees, including a visit to the prison last fall by an aide to [Condoleezza] Rice] that was ‘purely on detainee operations and reporting,’” USA Today reported in 2004. “And he said he was reminded of the need to improve the intelligence output of the prison ‘many, many, many times.’” Townsend confirmed she had visited but denied the accusation, calling it “ridiculous.”

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Frances Townsend has spent the last decade rehabilitating her public image following Bush’s failed presidency, recasting herself as a neutral national security expert and Trump critic.

Frances Townsend has spent the last decade rehabilitating her public image following Bush’s failed presidency, recasting herself as a neutral national security expert and Trump critic.
Screenshot: CBS Viacom

Townsend later went onto defend the Bush administration’s use of torture, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and forced nudity. “Regardless of what you think on the issue of whether or not waterboarding is torture, there were legal documents created and relied upon by career intelligence officials who then implemented the program,” she said during a 2009 interview with CNN after the Obama administration declassified Bush-era memos making the legal case for the CIA’s use of torture. “There were very strict controls on the program. These people relied on them and, now, to release them and to subject these people, these career professionals to a sort of public humiliation and opprobrium and then the potential of a congressional investigation really will make our intelligence community risk-averse.”

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Here’s more from the interview:

Townsend: I think it’s perfectly legitimate for this attorney general and this president to decide they’re not going to use this technique. But by disclosing them you’ve really handcuffed future administrations. And by the way, the president has appointed a group to look at the effectiveness and use of these techniques. And that group has not come out with their findings yet and it really does foreclose their ability to say they are effective. In this morning’s “Wall Street Journal” there’s an op-ed by Director Hayden and former Attorney General Mukasey, that gives the example of how the use of techniques led to the ultimate capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And so there is an argument to be made that in limited circumstances these techniques can be effective in preventing terrorist attacks.

John Roberts: According to this memo, the techniques included walling, which is pushing a person against a wall. It was intended to shock, more than anything. A facial slap, which was an insult slap, according to the memo. Cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation, insects placed in a confinement box and waterboarding. You said you weren’t a part of the policy development but were you aware of these techniques and were you concerned they might have crossed the legal line?

Frances Townsend: To tell you John, I was not a part of either the legal discussion or the policy discussion. And the enumerated list of techniques that you’ve gone through was probably one of the most closely guarded secrets even within the administration. I was aware that there was a program and it was later on that I understood not simply what the techniques were but that there were medical personnel involved, that the techniques could only be approved by the Director of CIA.

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While Townsend may not have been part of the “legal discussion” around CIA torture at the time, she will be at the center of legal discussions around how Activision Blizzard operates its global company, including on policies around workplace protections and diverse hiring.

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The company was recently called on by the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the country, to implement a Rooney Rule that would encourage interviewing diverse candidates for all new positions, something a number of other global companies have recently done. In a letter to the SEC obtained by Vice, Activision Blizzards called the modest proposal “an unworkable encroachment on the company’s ability to run its business and compete for talent in a highly competitive, fast-moving market.”

The publisher elaborated in an email to Kotaku that it was against the policy because it “failed to adequately consider how to apply these practices in all of the countries we operate in.” It’s unclear if Townsend’s vast prior experience will help Activision Blizzard finally figure out how to do that. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Leaked Big Oil Docs Hint at Support for a Carbon Tax, but the Money Trail Tells a Different Story

The American Petroleum Institute is planning to endorse a carbon tax but has no plans to stop funding climate-denying candidates—or stop representing Big Oil.

The American Petroleum Institute is planning to endorse a carbon tax but has no plans to stop funding climate-denying candidates—or stop representing Big Oil.
Photo: David Zalubowski (AP)

The #resistance is growing. The American Petroleum Institute, which is the nation’s largest lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, is planning to endorse levying a price on carbon pollution, according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement comes as the oil industry faces the prospect of tighter regulations with the Biden administration and Democratic control of both houses of Congress. While it’s tempting to look at API’s planned endorsement of a carbon tax as a sign the industry is getting serious about climate change, following the money tells a much different story about what API’s legislative priorities are.

“API supports economy-wide carbon pricing as the primary government climate policy instrument to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while helping keep energy affordable, instead of mandates or prescriptive regulatory action,” the group wrote in a draft statement.

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Carbon taxes aren’t necessarily a bad idea, but they’re unlikely to deliver big carbon pollution cuts on their own. A January meta-analysis found existing carbon taxes have produced emissions reductions of only up to 2% per year. The policies can also be unjust and therefore unpopular if they end up putting the burden on fuel buyers instead of companies, as we’ve seen in recent years France and Ecuador.

But what API’s members are probably interested in is staving off more serious climate policy, like outright caps on pollution or the forced closure of fossil-fueled power plants. Those kinds of policies would be in line with President Joe Biden’s stated climate goals. But the industry representatives are clearly not interested in phasing out of fossil fuels, which is an urgently necessary step to draw down emissions.

There’s an even clearer sign API has not, in fact, been won over by the climate movement: the group’s political donations. Campaign finance data shows that the industry group has given millions to politicians and PACs who are very much not down with the climate cause.

Last year, API poured $6,000 into Sen. Jim Inhofe’s successful re-election campaign. The Oklahoma Republican is one of the best-known climate deniers in the country. He recently introduced legislation to protect the Keystone XL pipeline from the “the far-left’s war on fossil fuels,” which LOL. He’s also perhaps best known for lobbing a snowball across the Senate floor six years ago in an attempt to “prove” that global warming isn’t real. Dude believes the climate crisis is a hoax, and even confirmed that in a 2015 vote. This is not a man who will line up behind a carbon tax API will reportedly voice its support of.

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API also donated $5,300 to Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who the League of Conservation Voters gave a lifetime score of 4% on a scorecard of his environmental voting record. As of less than a year ago, he wouldn’t say he believes in the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are heating up the planet. Last month on Fox News, Scalise called Biden’s climate policies “devastating” and baselessly said they’d “increase global emissions and crush American jobs.” If anyone’s destroying American jobs, it’s the fossil fuel industry, which has been laying off workers en masse amid crashing fuel prices. And if anything’s devastating about Biden’s climate plan, it’s that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

In 2020, API also gave a whopping $5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that was started in 2015 by allies of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and is run by his former aides. Last year, the PAC spent half a billion dollars in pursuit of its goal of defending a Senate Republican majority from “Senate Democrats’ far left agenda”—an agenda which includes climate policy. A large part of that, of course, is fending off climate legislation, particularly the Green New Deal, which McConnell himself vowed he would block as though he’s the “Grim Reaper.” As long as the filibuster is in place, it’s likely McConnell can stop climate action even as the Senate’s minority leader.

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Even the supposedly climate-friendly Republicans API has given to don’t support a tax. The group gave $11,500 to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s 2020 campaign. While he introduced what could be called climate legislation last February, it was incredibly weak. It didn’t aim to reduce fossil fuel use at all; rather, it just aimed to reduce emissions through carbon capture. This tech is not a real solution to the climate crisis—it does nothing to address the local impacts of fossil fuel production like toxic pollution, and it’s totally unproven to work at scale—but it’s favored by oil companies and their allies because it doesn’t disrupt their extraction-based business models. According to E&E News, McCarthy and the group of representatives who introduced it also explicitly argued against a carbon tax.

So what we have here is API considering endorsing a carbon tax—albeit one without any set price, timeline, or details about accountability for the fossil fuel industry for past misdeeds—while simultaneously funding politicians that will vote against a carbon tax. This doesn’t seem like a particularly serious endorsement of even the most barest minimum of climate policies. But then, what lobbying group would really put its own members at risk?

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Biden Warns Amazon to Stop Intimidating Warehouse Workers Ahead of Union Vote

Joe Biden has effectively endorsed ongoing unionization efforts at an Amazon facility in the state of Alabama and warned the e-commerce giant that its efforts to shut down the drive must involve “no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”

Workers for Amazon have long complained of everything from grueling hours and quotas in exchange for low compensation to astonishing levels of warehouse injuries, dangerous conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, dystopian workplace surveillance, driver tip skimming, and retaliatory treatment of particularly outspoken employees. Par for the course, Amazon has resisted labor organizers’ work to convince nearly 6,000 employees at a distribution center in the majority-Black city of Bessemer, Alabama to vote in favor of joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, as well as organizing efforts more generally—using techniques generally commonplace in corporate America but which are being deployed with particular zeal by the e-commerce titan.

Amazon has bombarded workers with anti-union propaganda, texted them pro-management messages, posted job ads for union-busting experts, and forced them to attend mandatory meetings. In Alabama, Amazon executives sought to have the National Labor Relations Board postpone a union vote, as well as tried to force the vote to happen in person during the coronavirus pandemic. Labor organizers have told media that workers at the facility have been captive audiences to mandatory anti-union meetings and that managers tried to intimidate workers who challenge the information given in those sessions by photographing their work badges. The election is nonetheless proceeding on the terms Amazon tried to prevent, conducted via mail-in ballots that will be counted on March 30. The stakes are high: If workers successfully form Amazon’s first union in Alabama, it is likely to unleash a tidal wave of union campaigns at other work sites. A recent nationwide survey shared with Gizmodo showed the vast majority of hundreds of Amazon drivers polled were in support of forming their own unions.

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In a video message posted to Twitter regarding “workers in Alabama” on Sunday, Biden reiterated his support for labor unions and said he would keep his “promise” to support organizing efforts. He didn’t mention Amazon by name, although there was no doubt to which employer he was calling out.

“You should all remember the National Labor Relations Act didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist, it said that we should encourage unions,” Biden said. “Let me be really clear: It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either.”

“The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop. Full stop,” Biden continued. “Today and over the next few days and weeks workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important, a vitally important choice as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis, and the reckoning on race—what it reveals the deep disparities that still exist in our country.”

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“And there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” Biden concluded. “No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences… Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice. And it’s your right, not that of an employer, it’s your right. No employer can take that right away.”

The New York Times wrote it is “unusual” for presidents to weigh in on specific labor disputes (a sentiment that may only run in one direction, given the last administration’s unrelentingly hostile stance towards the labor movement and federal union busting attempts). The Washington Post wrote that Biden’s rebuttal is “striking” because Amazon’s senior vice president of global affairs, whiny corporate mouthpiece Jay Carney, served as the White House press secretary under Barack Obama and Biden’s administration. Carney was doubtlessly brought on under the expectation his tenure in the executive branch could help the company grease the wheels in D.C.

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Faiz Shakir, a former aide to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is the founder of More Perfect Union, one of the many labor advocacy groups that have urged Biden to speak out in favor of the Alabama union effort. Shakir told the Post that Biden’s statement was the biggest show of support for unionization to come from the White House in many years.

“We haven’t had this aggressive and positive of a statement from a president of the United States on behalf of workers in decades,” Shakir said. “It is monumental that you have a president sending a message to workers across the country that if you take the courageous step to start to unionize you will have allies in the administration, the NLRB, and the Labor Department. It means a lot.”

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“It’s almost unprecedented in American history,” Erik Loomis, a University of Rhode Island labor historian, also told the Post. “We have the sense that previous presidents in the mid-20th century were overtly pro-union, but that really wasn’t the case. Even [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] never really came out and told workers directly to support a union.”

While Biden’s support for the Amazon effort is a major development, undoing Trump-era damage to the labor movement and institutions like the NLRB isn’t going to happen on a timeline anywhere close to overnight. The NLRB was controlled by Trump appointees who were eagerly used their power to launch sweeping assaults on workers’ rights, their ability to organize, and rules holding employers accountable.

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The Biden administration’s new acting general counsel at the NLRB, Peter Sung Ohr, has rolled back numerous Trump-era directives. But Biden has yet to act on on major labor law reforms like the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would add teeth to the NLRB’s regulatory authority, as well as prevent employers from forcing unions into bargaining impasses and implementing pro-management contracts.

QAnon, CultTok, and Leaving It All Behind

“I was impressed that it only took four years,” Danielle, self-identified ex-cult member, 34, said on a phone call. This was a few days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, and we were talking about the previous week of SOS social media posts from wide-eyed QAnon followers, like a TikToker propped up on a pillow, pleading, like a disoriented hostage: “If nothing happens on the 20th, how many of you are going to feel stupid as hell?”

With Danielle’s long catalogue of TikTok videos poking fun at Trump worship and conspiracy theories, I waited for her to chuckle, but she was serious. “Just realizing that it’s a lie is only the first step in the process right there,” Danielle reflected. “They’re going to go through some stages until they come out on the other side.”

Like many “#excult” TikTokers, Danielle–aka DutchessPrim on TikTok who wishes to be identified by a first name only—refers to her white Evangelical megachurch as a cult. She’s not broadly describing white Evangelicalism, which would imply that 29 percent of white people in America are cult members. She uses “cult” specifically in reference to her hometown megachurch and monthly stadium-sized televangelist “Crusades” she attended throughout her childhood, where she was told if she strayed from the rules, she would be on the wrong side of “spiritual warfare” of good angels and bad angels battling over souls of potential church defectors. “A lot of the things that I was taught were very hateful towards a lot of groups of people,” she added.

Culttok and similar fundamentalist religious defector TikTok accounts sort of feel like something between educational channels and therapeutic practice; they (often former Evangelicals and Mormons) affirm that they were completely engulfed by a very specific kind of dogmatic ideology. They recall how they rejected what they describe as alternative facts and prejudiced messaging. They discuss the challenges of breaking free and letting go.

“Right now, QAnon and Trumpism [are] part of their identity, and recognizing that they were wrong is going to require a lot of introspection and self-analysis and critical thinking,” an ex-Mormom TikToker said in one video about QAnoners. Others have pointed out that Q, whose drops are littered with Biblical passages, distorted fundamentalist teachings. “Growing up as a fundamentalist Evangelical, we were taught that there was a greater purpose for everything, and that the rest of the world just didn’t know it yet,” an ex-Evangelical tells the camera. “Which is exactly what QAnon believes. They believe that there’s one savior playing a 3D chess game to save them from an evil they can’t see or fight.” Now that there are enough people grieving the loss of Q-pilled family members and friends to fill at least a medium-sized subreddit, it seems natural that some exculttokers and other defectors have addressed the question floating around for months—what’ll it take for all these Q people to leave?


For Danielle and other #excult TikTokers interviewed for this article, TikTok is a safe distance from her family, who are over on Facebook, and the pseudonymous handle makes searching nearly impossible (though a few people from her other life have found her there anyway).

On her TikTok, along with gleeful reacts to news bloopers and ridiculous tweets, Danielle parodies absurd church gossip and the many, many calls from her Q dad, who is portrayed in a tinfoil hat. On January 12th, she reenacted a late night call in which he tells her to withdraw all of the cash from her bank account, fill up her car with gas, and stock up on food; he informs her that Kamala Harris is building concentration camps in Northern Alaska. By January 18th, he tells her that all of the tubs are full of water and there’s a loaded gun next to the door.

In another TikTok, her more despondent “dad” says he suspects he might’ve been lied to, on the day after the inauguration: “I don’t know if you heard, but the founder of Q quit. I mean, that fool just said that we need to accept the results of the election!” Danielle doesn’t seize the opportunity to validate his doubts. Instead she asks if he’s heard about the “face-swap” fantasy that Trump and Joe Biden had literally swapped faces (a scenario propagated by an anonymous 4chan poster, likely a troll). He finds that reassuring, and she warmly hangs up and laughs to someone camera: “I’m just fucking with him at this point, I’m over it.”

She explained, “I think we have to laugh so we don’t scream.”

Danielle’s parents have fallen into the Q pipeline and what she and many call Trump’s “Cult 45” after she left the church. She can’t speak to how many of her former community members adhere to QAnon dogma but added that her education and unwavering devotion to the Republican Party would certainly make people more receptive.

QAnon (as a virus, with the sole purpose of spreading) feeds on the idea that Satanic forces are waging war for control of America and the minds of its citizens; it is explicitly founded on the idea of Satanic pedovores controlling a shadow government and driving media narratives.

But the big one—which dovetails nicely with the elusive, unforeseeable Plan—is the Rapture, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, an apocalyptic event to unfold on an unknowable schedule. Danielle’s mother believed quite literally that, on any day, trumpets from the sky would awaken the family, that God would ride in on a white horse, and the faithful would vanish to meet Jesus while nonbelievers were left behind to suffer the Apocalypse on Earth.

The event is rivetingly described in the 1990s best-selling, almost pornographically gratuitous, semi-fictional end-times series Left Behind, co-written by Evangelical minister Tim LaHaye and Christian author Jerry B. Jenkins. (The Washington Post has described them both as dispensationalists, believers that we are living through unfolding chapters, or dispensations, pre-written by God.) The series lures the reader into an action-packed page-turner full of car wrecks and cities on fire, at turns weaving into conspiracy theories that could easily be imposed on real-world events. The harbingers of doom, according to Left Behind, are a sort of deep state cabal pushing for a One World Government, a single currency, unrest in the Middle East, and the emergence of a Satanic false prophet—themes which, in the 21st century, have been superimposed on the war in Iraq, Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Israel embassy to Jerusalem, the European Union, and virtually all political opposition.

With the looming Rapture in mind, Danielle’s parents and church didn’t so much view politicians as functionaries for maintaining infrastructure, allotting budgets to federal departments and such, but agents of God or Satan, a militant all-or-nothing stance amplified by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and Alex Jones. When she turned 18, she was overwhelmed by the number of elders, and her parents, telling her that she would be a warrior at the polls, that her role was to stand up for God and cast her Republican vote. She remembers watching a propaganda film about Obama and crying when he was elected. “I’m surprised more churches haven’t lost their 501c3s in the past four years because of how much politics you’re hearing from pulpit,” she said.

When online conspiracies of the 2000s arrived, her parents were ready for them. When she brought up Q last summer, Danielle’s mom admitted that some elements of the ideology “make sense.” “That’s when I realized I was starting to lose them,” she said.

Years before performance artist Marina Abramović sent the notorious 2015 “Spirit Cooking” email that sprawled into a wild InfoWars conspiracy supposedly implicating the Clinton campaign in Satanic pedovore rituals—about midway through President Obama’s first term, maybe—Danielle had started to square up to the sinking feeling that things were all wrong. According to her church’s teachings, even feeling that things were wrong was wrong and meant she’d gotten “lost.” Starting with the question of why women weren’t welcome in church leadership positions and a lack of apparent concern for racial equality, she began re-assessing her own internalized rules: obedience, non-threatening femininity, consignment to a silent battle against her own critical thoughts. Around age 25, she said, her mounting doubts boiled over to a “quarter-life crisis.”

This is, in part, why she sees TikTok as a place where she can “make amends with the universe.” She can no longer wave away the real-world harm caused when a critical mass of people ascribe to the idea that being gay is a choice, for instance. “I felt like I owed a very wide audience…not only an apology but what am I doing to make up for lost time?” Her earliest TikToks weren’t about cult mentality, but amplifying Black Lives Matter protest clips and educating Donald Trump on Confederate atrocities, to the tune of Frozen’s “Let It Go.” (“Take ‘em down, take ‘em down,” she sings, over a slideshow of monuments.)

It took two years for Danielle to gather the strength to get in the car, drive to her brother’s house, and process her breakdown.

“You wake up one morning, and you realize that you don’t have to be that way, but you don’t know what other way to be,” she reflected. Without a friend or a fellow defector, she had to navigate the outside world alone. “It’s like being dumped in a country where you don’t speak the language, and nobody’s willing to teach you.”

You wouldn’t be able to tell from her TikTok—where she regails followers with whacky stories, logically deconstructs the connection between cults and MAGA, and fields questions about her current beliefs—but she can’t delete her emotional programming. She has to hold her doubts and inspect them in a constant process of rewriting and re-analysis. “It’s funny because this is the one thing where I really sympathize with the MAGA crowd,” she said. “I’ll drive by a megachurch and I have this burning desire to go in, like an addiction. I miss it, and I still want to be a part of it. But my logical brain tells me that I feel susceptible to it still 10 years later.”


Danielle identified a series of her former church’s protocols which seemed particularly cultish: “love bombing” new members with a big open-armed Sunday spectacle, maintaining paranoid vigilance of demonic outsiders, keeping tabs on each others’ missteps, possessing secret knowledge which makes everyone else wrong, complete devotion to charismatic leaders (especially televangelists like Benny Hinn) and warning of Biblical consequences for dissidents.

The QAnon ideology doesn’t neatly square with those indoctrination techniques—QAnon followers do ostracize “sheeple” and defer to Q’s total authority, but Trump (his separate-but-parallel cult), checks more of the boxes: charismatic “love-bomber” who demands total fealty from his enablers (or sic an armed mob on them). Former QAnon adherent and QAnonCasulaties subreddit moderator Jitarth Jadeja pointed out to Gizmodo via email that QAnon is psychological manipulation, but “not really a perfect match to anything. It’s kind of like an entirely new phenomenon, like some kind of force of nature we haven’t quite experienced before.”

As news networks have tried to explain QAnon to their viewers over the past few months, researchers have been arguing that we need to tighten up descriptors that adequately convey the danger of QAnon—it’s not just a “conspiracy theory,” any more than a religion is automatically an authoritarian cult. And then the word “cult,” a general term for devotion to a person, orthodoxy, or work—a word that accurately describes both followings of Ayn Rand and the Rocky Horror Picture Show—is kind of meaningless without other adjectives like “destructive” and “authoritarian.” Cult theorist Steven Hassan, author of The Cult of Trump and, himself, a former Moonie, calls this the “influence continuum,” placing QAnon on the “destructive authoritarian” axis of “political” cults, a class which also includes Aryan Nations, the Demoratic Workers’ Party, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The “destructive” cult suppresses what he calls the “authentic self” by forcing followers to adopt the dependent, obedient “cult self.” This is where the tightly controlled institution Danielle grew up in and more decentralized psychological manipulation of QAnon align.

“The vast majority of people in the United States in an authoritarian groups, in my opinion, have been raised in them,” Hassan told Gizmodo over the phone. If followers leave a cult but don’t reach a “perspective shift,” Hassan said, they might be just as likely to go along with another one.

“I guess the question is why are they leaving?” he said. “Are they leaving because they realize that their minds have been hacked? Or are they leaving because they realized that the prophecy failed and Trump isn’t going to be the president anymore?”

When asked whether he worried that more conspiracy theory-related destructive authoritarian political cults could simply step in, he said, “I’m very concerned.”


Q not only manipulates scripture to validate vague predictions and elevate Trump to messiah status, but specifically references passages that appeal to the dispensationalism of Left Behind. Q-drops are rife with passages alluding to spiritual warfare, like Ephesians 6:10-18: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Major white Evangelical players reciprocated, early, disseminating QAnon-adjacent theories and sometimes just QAnon. (Danielle isn’t sure exactly how QAnon reached her parents, but it certainly wasn’t through 8kun, she said.)

In the 2020 pre-election book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, Sarah Posner covers the robust network of white Evangelical agenda-setters and televangelists who threw support behind Trump early and in return were granted “open door” access to his office throughout his presidency. The most prominent is televangelist Paula White, Trump’s longtime friend, “spiritual advisor,” and previous Trump Tower resident, who’s long maintained that she and Trump are on a mission from God to literally battle demons. White has collaborated with and spoken alongside, Dave Kubal, the director of an Evangelical political issues organization Intercessors for America, which recently put out a QAnon prayer guide titled “THE DEEP STATE PROBLEM.”

Even as a presidential candidate, Trump already attracted some white Evangelical figures who were certain that—even though he couldn’t and never really tried to quote scripture—God has sent, in Trump, a divine instrument to steamroll the heretical liberal cabal where other politicians had merely shown up for photo-ops. In 2015, evangelist Lance Wallnau described Trump on Facebook as “anointed in this season to break things open.” Comparing his to Jeremiah’s God-given assignment to “tear down and to uproot and to plant,” Wallnau continued:

“He has broken up a demonic cartel of political correctness and now it is up to you and me, each of us to move forward in our own sphere and knock down the obstacles that are silencing us and holding us back from what we are called to say and do.”

This and other prophecies would cement his relevance for the next five years.

Others made, and were rewarded for, similarly Apocalyptic prophecies. Televangelist Frank Amedia, a 2016 Trump campaign “liaison for Christian policy,” claimed before the 2016 election that God had told him that he’d sent Trump to bring on the Second Coming. (He’s also claimed to have resurrected people, and an ant, from the dead.) He went on to form POTUS Shield, an unofficial council of religious soldiers battling for Trump.

If you’re looking, you can even find a minister to mix Gospel with QAnon “spiritual intel reports” on a Twitch-style stream at the internet-infamous Omega Kingdom Ministry, which was inspired by QAnon “prophet” Mark Taylor, a former firefighter who claimed that he was told by God that Trump would be president in 2011, a tale that later manifested as a film.

White Evangelical pastors, Christian publications, and leaders in various Christian denominations have sounded the alarm early and often about QAnon, which isn’t only affecting their communities but also spitting back a bastardization of Christian teachings.

“I didn’t just feel like I was being fed overt Christian messaging, I was being fed [overt Christian messaging],” Jadeja, QAnonCasulaties moderator, said via email. (Despite embarrassment, he’s publicly shared his story in the hopes of helping others.) He hasn’t ascribed to Christian teachings before following QAnon. “It’s not a thread, it’s not intertwined, religious messaging is the rock upon which Q built his church.”


April (TikTok: aprilajoy), pillories the alarming QAnon-adjacent content that’s swirling around her conservative Christian community. She’s not #culttok; she’s still a believing Christian who’s disgusted by the abusive and hateful brinksmanship that’s eclipsed Christian empathy and love.

She uses her account, along with family content and news commentary, as a dump for all the toxic QAnon-adjacent waste she’s seeing on Facebook. In her long-running series “Things I saw ‘Christians’ post on Facebook,” she reads aloud a rapid-fire series green-screened memes and panic in a warbled voice effect.

A few samples: “AMERICA HAS FALLEN! ARE YOU LOCKED AND LOADED YET?” “Let he who hath not an AR15 take his $600 stimulus and buyeth a new one.” “Are we wearing red coats Wednesday or what? Sorry, it’ll be my first Civil War.” “What you see from the Capitol is from the Communist playbook. There are NOT Trump supporters!” “I guarantee you Judgement Day won’t be rigged.” “THEY’RE DOING THE SAME THING TO TRUMP THAT THEY DID TO JESUS ON A SMALLER SCALE. BEST PRESIDENT EVER.” “Two biggest LIES of 2020: 1. Epstein killed himself 2. Biden won.” “Father continues to release warrior angels to fight and bind the spirit of Jezebel coming against President Trump to destroy him! AMEN!” “Protected by our LORD AND SAVIOR” (over an image of Trump behind the Resolute Desk with Jesus over his shoulder.) “I tried to stop them, but I am only one man” (over Trump hugging a Statue of Liberty crying red tears.)

The paranoid hostility resembles nothing of the Christian spirit she’d embraced growing up in the 4,000-member church which her father pastored. “[Trump] has torn up families and churches over this,” she said. She says she gets messages daily from people whose parents practically disowned them. “If you speak out against Trump, they take it so personally that it’s like you’re speaking out against them or against Jesus.”

“I don’t know how to emphasize this enough,” she said, “but the Jesus that these people are talking about—a Jesus that is not all-loving—is not Jesus.”


Q’s plan complements certain (mostly white) fringe evangelists’ messaging, but it’s ensnared followers from all over the (mostly white) spiritual spectrum—believers in Norse paganism, Catholicism, New Age spirituality, and (in at least one case) Wicca.

As videos from the Capitol riot circulated on Twitter, a chunk of observers got a laugh out of a guy in what looked like a Roman armor Halloween costume. While he appeared to the uninitiated as a flamboyant oddball similar to the horned “QShaman,” ex-Mormon #culttoker Michelle, 29, immediately picked up on the reference: Captain Moroni, a commander who led an insurrection against “king-men” who attempted to topple democracy and install a monarch.

“The guy dressed as Captain Moroni really got me,” she said. “In the Book of Mormon, the king-men, who are portrayed as evil, are trying to overthrow the government because they lost the election. Captain Moroni is the one who has the title of liberty [a brief affirmation of democratic principles] and kills all the king-men because they’re not following the results of the election.”

Michelle—who asked that we use a pseudonym but goes by actual_agency on TikTok—focuses less on politics than personal transformation. Over the course of her #exMo TikToks, she enjoys forbidden coffee, finds her style, talks about clean-slate loving parenting rules.

She sees how the story of Gadianton robbers—a secret Satanic mafia from ancient America that infiltrates the government and kills people—could be adapted to dangerous narratives.

“People think that the government is run by the Gadianton robbers,” she said. “It’s very, very parallel to the Deep State. And so you search [for the Deep State] and think, well, that must be what this is.”

Her faith crisis began percolating with a latent awareness of the MAGA-like ability to wave away the leader’s abuses. She was horrified to learn in her twenties that apostle Joseph Smith had married teenagers—if the prophet wasn’t the person she believed him to be, what else was untrue? One question led to more questions, and she only got excuses for Republican-backed policies she didn’t agree with, like child separation, racist killings, and ignoring climate change (the last issue was something God would handle). “I really believed for a long time that if you’re a Democrat, you can’t be a Mormon,” she said. “But then I just started looking at my beliefs, and they just didn’t line up with the Republican Party.” When Black Lives Matter protests grew in size and frequency summer, she shared her concerns on Facebook, which only attracted a flurry of fretful texts and apologists on her doorstep.

“It comes back down to the idea that everyone is either working for God or Satan. There’s no alternative…I don’t know, it’s hard to be specific. That’s where I was like, I’m done. I can’t handle this anymore. “

In Mormonism, there is a “shelf,” the apologist term for the place you’re supposed to put your doubts. “Well, it gets to a point where your shelf breaks. There are too many things on there, and it just doesn’t make sense,” Michelle said. “Everyone has a shelf.”

CPAC Panelist Tried to Launch Japanese Tea Party for Guru Who Communed With Pro-Trump Spirit

Happiness Realization Party candidates, including Jay Aeba (seen in the gray suit at center), at a Tokyo hotel in 2009.

Happiness Realization Party candidates, including Jay Aeba (seen in the gray suit at center), at a Tokyo hotel in 2009.
Photo: Harumi Ozawa (Getty Images)

One of the speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the potential coronavirus super-spreader event being thrown by Republicans in Orlando, Florida this week, is a former leader of the political arm of a… we’ll say spiritually innovative faith in Japan. The guru at the center of said group has previously claimed to have summoned the “guardian spirit” of Donald Trump.

That’s according to a report by the Daily Beast, which flagged Friday CPAC panelist Jay “Hiroaki” Aeba as a onetime leader of Kōfuku-no-Kagaku (Happy Science), a spiritual movement described by Vice in 2012 as the “laziest cult ever” and more recently in the New York Times as “Tokyo’s answer to Scientology.” Its guru, former bank exec and self-proclaimed living god Ryuho Okawa, claims to be a medium of sorts that can talk to the spirit of anyone, living or dead, and has happily invoked that ability in both scenarios. Per the Beast, Okawa has claimed to have spoken with such living luminaries as the current brutal failson dictator of North Korea and Donald Trump, as well as Jesus Christ (who still technically lives through all of us, I guess, depending on your religious persuasion):

[Okawa] claims to have had a great awakening in 1981 and subsequently founded the Happy Science religion (Kofuku no Kagaku) in 1986. In American terms, he’s like Billy Graham crossed with Shirley MacLaine. He’s channeled the spirits of Jesus, Kim Jong II, and in 2016, he even managed to obtain an exclusive interview with the guardian spirit of Donald Trump.

In that amazing encounter, Trump’s spirit correctly stated, via Okawa, that he would be the next president.

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Other spirits Okawa has had nice conversations with include Quetzalcoatl, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, and the actress Natalie Portman, according to Vice News.

In a video dug up by the Beast, Okawa relays Trump’s guardian spirit as saying it enjoys criticism as much as a “New York cheesecake” (Trump allegedly prefers apple or chocolate pie) before rambling about how it will be “strong.”

Happy Science was reportedly once a rival of sorts to Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that apparently tried and failed to assassinate Okawa with the deadly nerve agent sarin before it launched similar attacks on the population of Tokyo in 1995. According to the Times, Okawa is listed as the author of over 2,000 books, has been described as the head of a pyramid scheme, and is vehemently opposed by his own son, Hiroshi, who says he is full of “complete nonsense.” Okawa also moonlights as a peddler of bogus cures for the coronavirus—which he says was created by Chinese scientists, stolen by anti-Communist aliens, and dumped back on China as divine punishment. Naturally, he also believes Japan must prepare for a forthcoming apocalyptic world war.

While the ideological similarities between Happy Science and CPAC’s swarms of pro-Trump election truthers and QAnon conspiracists are obvious, here’s where Aeba, the leader of the Japanese Conservative Union (JCU), comes in. Aeba’s conference bio states he has attended CPAC since 2011 and hosted joint events with the American Conservative Union—CPAC’s organizer—but it doesn’t mention he was a chief of fringe Happy Science-affiliated political party the Happiness Realization Party (HRP). Per the Beast:

Aeba, who also used the alias Jikido “Jay” Aeba, and sometimes goes by Jay H. Aeba, was born in 1967 and graduated from the elite Keio University Law Division in 1989. In 1990, [Aeba] joined the headquarters of Happy Science and in May of 2009, he became their political leader. He served as the organization public relations chief. In 2013, he became the chief of the research and investigation division. In 2015, he ostensibly left the party and created the Japanese Conservative Union.

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Here’s a fun sample of what the HRP’s platform looked like in 2009, when Aeba was ascendant, according to the Japan Times:

A Happiness commercial posted on YouTube last week lays out the stakes. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is preparing to nuke Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, bring Japan to its knees and enslave its people. “Japan will be unable to do anything about this because of its Constitution,” Kim sneers in the clip, referring to the so-called pacifist clause — Article 9 — of the 1947 document, written under U.S. Occupation, which renounces the right to wage war.

Against pictures of a mushroom cloud exploding over Tokyo and red ink slowly drowning the nation, the narrator warns that China ultimately lurks behind this plot. “With a population of 1.3 billion, China will rule the world,” intones the voice of Kim. “And North Korea will be No. 2.” Neither the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, nor their likely successors, the Democratic Party of Japan, have an answer to this threat, says the party. “The very existence of the nation hangs in the balance.”

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According to Vice, the HRP has never succeeded in electing so much as a single candidate to the Japanese parliament. It instead appears more interested in cultivating relationships with U.S. conservatives by adopting ultra-nationalist positions such as hardcore opposition to China, the subject of Aeba’s CPAC speech. In fact, Vice wrote that Aeba originally went to CPAC in 2011 to study the populist rhetoric of GOP politicians so that Okawa might pull off a Tea Party-style political revolution in Japan. (Right-wing nationalism has indeed surged in Japan since, though more to the benefit of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party and the hardcore ultra-conservative Nippon Kaigi, which aims to restore an emperor who would presumably not be Okawa.)

The current extent of Aeba’s relationship to Happy Science isn’t really clear. The Beast wrote that last year, Aeba professed to still believe in the religion, but that Happy Science disavowed him after he was named in Japanese media reports as the head of a nearly $9 million cryptocurrency scam that used an image of Aeba and Trump hanging out in marketing materials.

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“Jay [Aeba] and JCU are proceeding to deal with and address this issue with the cooperation of experts including lawyers,” the JCU told the Daily Beast. The organization added that it and Aeba have no organizational relationship to Happy Science, though it didn’t have any idea what Aeba’s personal religious beliefs are because it has a “policy of religious freedom for all members and staff.”

As the Beast noted, given the atmosphere of cultish fervor that has swallowed the GOP wholesale, it’s perhaps not too ridiculous to imagine that there could be market opportunities for someone claiming to be able to divine Trump’s will after his death. According to OpenSecrets, Aeba’s crypto startup is listed as a $60,000 partner in CPAC 2021.

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Aeba is in no way, shape, or form the only weirdo U.S. conservatives conjured up to speak at CPAC in 2021. Its speaker and panel list is stuffed full of figures promoting hoax claims that Joe Biden won the 2020 elections via mass fraud, while the ACU backpedaled and revoked an invitation to a hip-hop artist named Young Pharaoh after it was pointed out he is a raving anti-Semite.

Federal Judge Rules CDC’s Pandemic Eviction Moratorium Unconstitutional

File photo of Maricopa County constable Darlene Martinez signing an eviction order on October 7, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona.

File photo of Maricopa County constable Darlene Martinez signing an eviction order on October 7, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

A federal judge in Texas ruled on Thursday that the CDC’s eviction moratorium that was supposed to let people stay in their homes even if they lost income during the coronavirus pandemic is unconstitutional. With roughly 12 million tenants in the U.S. behind on rent, the ruling could have serious consequences for millions of people who can’t afford to put a roof over their head.

The ruling was issued by U.S. District Judge John Barker, a Trump appointee, who argued that eviction moratoriums were never issued for previous disasters, including the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

“The federal government cannot say that it has ever before invoked its power over interstate commerce to impose a residential eviction moratorium. It did not do so during the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic. Nor did it invoke such a power during the exigencies of the Great Depression. The federal government has not claimed such a power at any point during our Nation’s history until last year,” Judge Barker wrote in his 21-page ruling Thursday.

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The CDC first issued its eviction moratorium in September 2020, which was supposed to expire at the end of December 2020, but it was extended by another month by Congress. The Biden administration extended the moratorium until March, though it’s not clear yet whether there will be another extension coming.

The nationwide eviction moratorium requires tenants to give landlords a signed document swearing that they don’t make too much money ($99,000 for a single tax filer) and have experienced financial hardship during the pandemic, including a loss of income. The tenant must also make an effort to give their landlord partial payments, according to the CDC moratorium.

Judge Barker is very much concerned with the unprecedented nature of the order, as any conservative might be, and cites a 2010 Supreme Court decision that warns, “[p]erhaps the most telling indication of [a] severe constitutional problem ... is the lack of historical precedent.”

Of course, there hasn’t been a serious airborne pandemic that’s killed 500,000 Americans in a single year over the past century. But that doesn’t seem to concern Barker much. The judge hangs his hat on the idea that the federal government simply can’t do something if it hasn’t been done before.

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Some municipalities have issued their own eviction moratoriums during the covid-19 pandemic on top of the CDC order, but there are different rules and regulations for each state. For example, renters experiencing hardship in New York can get relief through May 2021, but only if they submit the right paperwork saying they still can’t pay their rent.

But it should be made clear that an eviction moratorium isn’t the same thing as cancelling rent. Once the moratorium is lifted, all tenants in the U.S. will still owe every penny they didn’t pay when they started to fall behind. And that really seems like the most cruel aspect of all this. The moratorium wasn’t even a way to wipe away debt and get people back on their feet. It’s just a way to push payments down the road so that people experiencing the worst of the pandemic are on the hook for a lot of money.

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America’s Leaders Have No Clue What to Do About Disinformation

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley who appeared at a hearing held by the House Congressional Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley who appeared at a hearing held by the House Congressional Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/House Committee on Energy and Commerce

As disinformation and misinformation have increasingly been blamed for rising political extremism and polarization in the U.S., lawmakers have naturally sought to cobble together some sort of legislative response. The problem is that Congress is, themselves, so polarized that they can’t seem to agree on how to do that.

Case in point: a congressional hearing held Wednesday by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where lawmakers sought to look at the role of not just social media companies, but also traditional media—i.e., television—in enflaming partisanship and extremism. Republicans and Democrats both admitted that partisan media has played a big role in recent political upheaval, while ultimately trading aggrieved barbs indicative of the very problem they were trying to solve.

What is America going to do about disinformation? The answer, apparently, is: We have no idea!

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Deplatforming Fox?

The hearing was spurred by a recent incident in which Democratic California lawmakers Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney penned a letter to a dozen cable, satellite, and streaming companies, from AT&T and Comcast to Apple and Amazon, effectively asking that they reconsider giving a platform to conservative news programming like “Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News” on the basis that they were essentially “misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm.” As example, a section of the letter reads:

We are concerned about the role AT&T plays in disseminating misinformation to millions of its U-verse, DirecTV, and AT&T TV subscribers, and we write to you today to request additional information about what actions AT&T is taking to address these issues…What moral or ethical principles (including those related to journalistic integrity, violence, medical information, and public health) do you apply in deciding which channels to carry or when to take adverse actions against a channel?

It’s unsurprising that Democrats would be concerned about this since right-wing media has widely been blamed for helping radicalize Donald Trump supporters and galvanizing their quest to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. That galvanization ultimately helped push a deranged crowd into the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6—an incident that ended with the deaths of at least five people.

Critics have also blamed outlets like Fox News and other right-wing channels for sewing doubts about the seriousness of the coronavirus threat—and, in so doing, endangering the lives of their viewers. The Democrats’ letter alleges:

These same networks also have been key vectors of spreading misinformation related to the pandemic. A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, 9 and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines.

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At Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans acknowledged the problematic nature of these beliefs, while nevertheless criticizing Democrats’ proposed solution, which they said was tantamount to unconstitutional censorship. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican and the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, vociferously attacked the recent letter, saying:

In all my time on this committee there’s never been a more obvious, direct attack on the First Amendment…If the Majority was really interested in a meaningful dialogue, you wouldn’t schedule a hyper-partisan hearing to shame and blame. You wouldn’t be sending letters pressuring private companies to block conservative media outlets. I’m not only disappointed by this hearing, I’m deeply troubled by it.

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Rodgers also trotted out the “C” word—claiming the letter was similar to “actions by the Chinese Communist party.” If Rodgers’s concerns about freedom of speech might hold some water, a defense of the most baseless right-wing content that has come down the pipeline from stations like Fox News and OAN does not. Democrats said Wednesday that they ultimately did not actually support pulling certain programming off the air, though they wanted to find a way to de-escalate their messages.

Dog Death Threats

Conservatives’ unhinged ideations were not the only ones on trial Wednesday. Republicans defensively pointed out examples of blue America’s own media-fueled delusions—including, apparently, an episode involving death threats to a dog.

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Yes, Jonathan Turley, a conservative legal scholar at George Washington University, has said before (and repeated yesterday) that, after testifying during Trump’s first impeachment hearing in 2019, he and his family became the object of ongoing death threats via social media—including ones directed at his goldendoodle, Luna. He said:

Extremist violent speech is not an abstract or academic matter with me or many others who work in the public domain. Through the years I’ve received hundreds of threats against myself, my family, even my dog. My home has been targeted. Multiple campaigns have sought my termination as a professor. … Thus, while I am generally viewed as free-speech purist, I have no illusions about the harm of disinformation and extremist speech in our society.

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Also present Wednesday was Rep. Steve Scalise, the GOP congressman who, in 2017, was shot during the so-called “Congressional baseball shooting” wherein a gunman opened fire at a charity game in Alexandria, Virginia. The culprit, 66-year-old James Hodgkinson, was a big Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter and was largely thought to have been radicalized by political media. Scalise said Wednesday:

The gunman was motivated by hyper-charged rhetoric that he was hearing from the left—from high, prominent elected officials, as well as media personalities…

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Sending death threats and attacking people you disagree with (verbally or otherwise) is a very bipartisan problem: Just look at the horrible abuse that disinformation-addled right-wingers hurled at local health officials and Dr. Anthony Fauci for having the temerity to suggest they should wear a face mask and quarantine so as not to catch covid-19. In other cases, the most radicalized conservatives have done more than talk (see: the attempted kidnapping of the Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, not to mention the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which threatened Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike).

Republicans also repeatedly brought up “Russiagate,” bandying it about as a liberal equivalent to their own constituents’ most paranoiac fantasies—and an example of how Democrats are susceptible to extreme thinking, too.

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In some sense, this is a valid point.“Russiagate” is a prime example of how a political meme can go viral, conquering millions of hearts and minds, before facts ever enter into play. The idea that Trump colluded with Russia to throw the 2016 presidential election was widely perpetuated by America’s elite media institutions (read: late night talk shows, MSNBC, CNN, Saturday Night Live, our biggest national newspapers, and so on). Leading news organizations gave the issue incessant, editorialized coverage—frequenting convincing their audiences that Trump’s downfall was right around the corner. These outsized claims largely fell flat when the Mueller investigation found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy to vindicate the “scandal’s” central premise. While there may be evidence of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, the news coverage of the scandal frequently played hard and loose with the facts.

America’s Unhealthy Social Media Diet

Yes, Americans on both sides of the political aisle are susceptible to believing stuff that isn’t true and getting all riled up. We can argue about who believes the more ludicrous stuff (or who has responded to that stuff with the more violence and vitriol), but when boiled down to its essentials, most partisan thinking has a strikingly similar message and outlook: We’re getting screwed and it’s somebody else’s fault. The problem is that both sides can’t agree on whose fault it is (usually, it’s blamed on the opposing political party).

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One invited speaker, Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University, said her research had seen similar types of information toxicity all over the map:

Misinformation is a systemic problem—it affects all. I wholeheartedly endorse the view that this is not a partisan issue. We see it in different geographies and right across the political spectrum operating in the same way.

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Speakers also zeroed in on one of the primary sources of the problem: the hollowing out of local news media via Big Tech’s greedy suck of national advertising revenue, and the subsequent ascendance of an information landscape governed by social media. With this transformation, Americans have essentially gone from a healthy media diet to one chock full of junk food.

Invited speaker Soledad O’Brien, a former news anchor and journalist who now runs her own media company, said that the affliction of America’s “truth decay” has been hastened by the decline of America’s journalism industry:

How did we get here? … I believe this era of “truth decay” began when local newspapers were badly—even mortally—wounded by the emergence of free social media and the decline of advertising dollars, like classified ads. Our country has lost almost 2,100 papers since 2004. Local news is the heartbeat of American journalism, the glue of civic participation, the place where we turn to for information about our local taxes, quality education, infrastructure. Its demise left the public with only the unfiltered and unverified cauldron of presumed fact and opinion that is social media.

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With these tectonic shifts, it’s also worth noting that our surviving media outlets have shifted to a business model that emphasizes divisive, polarizing issues designed to split audiences. Conflict drives readers, which drives ad revenue, which means that U.S. news outlets are effectively helping further the partisan entrenchment that everybody ostensibly wants to neutralize.

A Solution That Will Surely Work: Banning Liars

As with most things, diagnosing a problem can be far easier than finding a solution. There were few specific suggestions offered Wednesday about what could be done to make everybody more coherent and less angry.

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O’Brien, for example, proposed this actionable plan: “Do not book liars on the air!” she said repeatedly, opining that if news organizations would just avoid “liars” and “lies,” we could fix our broken media landscape.

Aside from the fact that it’s not exactly clear how outlets would do this (should CNN panelists be hooked up to polygraphs as soon as they enter the studio?), the problem that O’Brien is clearly side-stepping here is that Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on what counts as a lie and what counts as the truth. That’s the whole point: An ecosystem of separate, polarized, and mutually reinforcing news feeds has, time and again, led Americans to interpret the same set of facts through wildly different lenses. Within this atmosphere of distrust and fractured media, opportunistic actors—both domestic and foreign—take advantage of ideological fault-lines to make the problem worse.

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To come full circle and return to where we began: One thing seems certain and that is that de-platforming an organization like Fox News will not deliver us from this hellscape. No matter how noble the intent, a partisan crusade against conservative media won’t reduce polarization, nor will it rid America of the ideas expressed on those platforms. Instead, it will just drive former viewers of said content into other corners of the media ecosystem (read: the recent Twitter exodus to Parler), where they can be free to get more extreme.

Americans need to learn that neither half of the country is going anywhere. We’ll just have to keep listening to each other, no matter how much we hate what we hear.

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Facebook Finally Bans Myanmar Military After Feb. 1 Coup

A friend of Myanmar protester Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who died after being shot during a rally against the military coup, looks at pictures of her on a phone during a memorial service in Naypyidaw on February 25, 2021.

A friend of Myanmar protester Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who died after being shot during a rally against the military coup, looks at pictures of her on a phone during a memorial service in Naypyidaw on February 25, 2021.
Photo: STR/AFP (Getty Images)

Facebook finally banned the military in Myanmar, known as Tatmadaw, from the social media platform several weeks after the military staged a coup that toppled the democratically elected government. The ban on the country’s military includes Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

“Events since the February 1 coup, including deadly violence, have precipitated a need for this ban. We believe the risks of allowing the Tatmadaw on Facebook and Instagram are too great,” Rafael Frankel, director of policy for the Asia-Pacific region, said in a statement posted online late Wednesday.

“We’re also prohibiting Tatmadaw-linked commercial entities from advertising on the platform,” Frankel continued. “We are using the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar’s 2019 report, on the economic interests of the Tatmadaw, as the basis to guide these efforts, along with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These bans will remain in effect indefinitely.”

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Facebook has already taken down military-connected pages like Tatmadaw True News Information Team, MRTV, and MRTV Live since the coup earlier this month.

Facebook’s statement doesn’t mention the 20-year-old protester, Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who was shot in the head during an anti-coup protest in Myanmar and later died in the hospital, but that event has attracted condemnation from around the world.

The Myanmar government is currently being run by the military, but Facebook made sure to stress that certain parts of government that are vital to public health and wellbeing, such as the Ministry of Health and Sport and the Ministry of Education, will not be affected by the new ban.

Facebook is tremendously popular in Myanmar and one of the first things the military government did after taking power was to ban the social media platform. Service has been highly restricted ever since, with Netblocks reporting that Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram are all currently down.

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Facebook came under heavy criticism after the platform was used to incite genocide in Myanmar in 2018 but the company insisted on Wednesday that it held the military to the same standards as everyone else. The new statement lists four factors that caused Facebook to make this decision:

  1. The Tatmadaw’s history of exceptionally severe human rights abuses and the clear risk of future military-initiated violence in Myanmar, where the military is operating unchecked and with wide-ranging powers.
  2. The Tatmadaw’s history of on-platform content and behavior violations that led to us repeatedly enforcing our policies to protect our community.
  3. Ongoing violations by the military and military-linked accounts and Pages since the February 1 coup, including efforts to reconstitute networks of Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior that we previously removed, and content that violates our violence and incitement and coordinating harm policies, which we removed.
  4. The coup greatly increases the danger posed by the behaviors above, and the likelihood that online threats could lead to offline harm.

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The difficult part to understand, of course, is why points one, two, and four in the list weren’t enough for a ban on February 1 or earlier. The word “history” is used in points one and two, an implicit acknowledgement that none of this is new.

Optimists are fond of saying “better late than never,” but that’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re talking about things like genocide and military coups. But, better late than never, Facebook.

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The Oil and Gas Money Behind the Republicans Who Will Help Decide Deb Haaland’s Fate

Rep. Deb Haaland at her confirmation hearing to run the Interior Department.

Rep. Deb Haaland at her confirmation hearing to run the Interior Department.
Photo: Graeme Jennings (Getty Images)

Rep. Deb Haaland just finished a historic confirmation hearing to run the Department of Interior. If her nomination is pushed through committee, she will in all likelihood be confirmed as the first Indigenous person to ever serve on a presidential cabinet.

If confirmed, Haaland would be in charge of more than 500 million acres of federal land. There are a variety of things the secretary of the interior oversees, including national parks, recreation, wilderness areas, wildfire management, and more. All valid areas for senators on the Energy and Natural Resources committee to ask Haaland about. If she’s appointed, it would also open the door to repairing centuries of injustices done to tribes and the dispossession of their lands and neglect of services provided through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Understanding her views on how to fix multiple broken systems serving Indigenous communities is also crucial.

The Department of Interior also oversees federal oil and gas drilling leases. And it certainly stands to reason that her hearing would at least, in part, focus on it. But Republicans have obsessed over oil and gas drilling and pipelines in their lines of questioning, all but ignoring the other aspects of the role.

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Among the questions they’ve asked is one from Sen. John Barrasso, the ranking chairman on the committee, about Haaland’s support during her 2018 campaign for the House end oil and gas production and make up for lost royalty revenue by legalizing weed, creating a one-two boogeyman punch. (For the record, both winding down fossil fuel extraction and legalizing cannabis are both very popular, according to Data for Progress polling.) Then there’s Sen. John Hoeve, who asked why Haaland would go to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. (For the record, tribal leaders weren’t properly consulted nor did they consent to the pipeline, which was one of the key points of contention that gave rise to the protest.) Sen. Bill Cassidy, who referred to the Biden administration’s “politically driven, non-science agenda” of putting a temporary halt of oil and gas leasing. (For the record, oil and gas extraction is scientifically incompatible with a habitable planet.)

Many Republicans also invoked oil and gas workers and communities near extraction sites that provide services. Which is fair—we should be talking with those communities and workers about how to preserve their livelihoods and the planet. But there’s another important constituency Republicans members of the committee have assiduously failed to mention: The Big Oil donors who have pitched in millions to committee members’ campaigns. Campaign finance data from Open Secrets shows the committee received a collective $4.6 million in oil and gas money in the 2020 election cycle, and 87% of that money has flowed to Republicans.

Campaign finance data from Open Secrets showing who took money from oil and gas donors. Democrats are in blue, Republicans are in red.

Campaign finance data from Open Secrets showing who took money from oil and gas donors. Democrats are in blue, Republicans are in red.

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Barrasso, the anti-weed, pro-drilling ranking member, received $584,487. Sen. Steve Daines, who has said in a press release ahead of the hearing that he was “deeply concerned” about Haaland’s “radical views,” raked in $631,551 for the 2020 election cycle. (For comparison, Daines praised Trump’s nominees—an oil state representative and a fossil fuel lobbyist—about how tribes would be lucky to have them, but didn’t ask a single question or offer any praise for what Haaland would mean for tribes despite being a member of the Laguna Pueblo.) Cassidy pulled in $592,327 from the industry. You can get the gist in the graph above (which doesn’t include Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper due to data not being immediately available).

Research shows that oil and gas donors give to politicians who do their bidding. And it appears they’re getting their money’s worth in this hearing. Republicans on the committee have collectively received more than $4 million from the industry and have spent their question time largely pushing unfounded claims and red herrings. Democrats and the two Independents who caucus with them on the committee have received $587,122 from the industry. Most of that ($200,445 to be exact) went to West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin, the chairman and Democrat most likely to hold up Haaland’s nomination based on his public statements. Ironically, though, Haaland’s nomination could also hinge on the vote of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the biggest oil and gas recipient on the list who also has strong ties to the Alaska Native community.

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As Haaland’s hearing wraps up, we’ll have to wait to see how the committee votes on her nomination. But no matter how many Republicans invoke workers in their reasons against (or possibly for) voting to advance Haaland’s nomination to the Senate floor, it’s important to keep in mind the subtext of who they’re actually beholden to.

SolarWinds Hackers Also Went After NASA and the FAA

Illustration for article titled SolarWinds Hackers Also Went After NASA and the FAA

Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

Apparently not content with having penetrated the networks of such piddling federal agencies as the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and that agency that maintains our nuclear stockpile, the hackers of the “SolarWinds” affair also went after NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a new report from the Washington Post.

The report comes shortly after a briefing last week when White House national security adviser Anne Neuberger explained that approximately 100 different companies and a total of nine federal agencies had been successfully “compromised” by foreign hackers. The foreign intrusion campaign (likely “Russian in origin,” as officials have put it) is thought to be the largest in U.S. history.

The Neuberger update was the first official tally provided by the Biden administration on the extent to which government networks had been breached. At the time of her comments, all but two of those nine agencies had already been outed as targets (they include: the State Department, DHS, and the Departments of Energy, Justice, Commerce, Treasury, and the National Institutes of Health). Now, the Washington Post seems to have identified the stragglers. Per the paper’s report:

Last week, Neuberger said the government found that computer systems at nine federal agencies were compromised. She did not name them, but The Post has confirmed the identities with U.S. officials. They include NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, which have not previously been publicly identified.

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It is unknown what kind of access the hackers may have had to either agency. However, officials have said that, in instances where the government was breached, all data that was stolen was unclassified and that operational systems were never accessed. NASA reportedly told the newspaper that they continue to work with the U.S. cyber agency CISA on “mitigation efforts to secure NASA’s data and network.” We have reached out to both NASA and the FAA for comment and will update if they respond.

The revelations add little to the overall “SolarWinds” narrative, but underline the scope of the intel-gathering operations conducted against American targets by foreign operators. They also conjure speculation about the potential damage a more nefarious cyber campaign might wreak. Indeed, it’s not exactly comforting to imagine hackers targeting the federal agency charged with making sure airplanes don’t crash.

Details about the breaches have continued to emerge at a steady pace, as federal investigations into the intrusions pick up. Since the U.S. has tentatively blamed Russia for the attacks (some reports have shown China may also be involved), the Biden administration is reportedly preparing sanctions in retaliation.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held one of several recent hearings into the matter, with representatives from many of the IT firms targeted by the campaign (including SolarWinds, Microsoft, FireEye and CrowdStrike). The hearing yielded little new information but Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Warner perhaps best summed up the overall concerns on “SolarWinds” like so:

One of the reasons the SolarWinds hack has been especially concerning is that it was not detected by the multibillion dollar U.S. government cybersecurity enterprise, or anyone else, until the private cybersecurity firm FireEye publicly announced that it had detected a breach of its own network by a “nation-state” intruder. A very big question looming in my mind is: had FireEye not detected this compromise in December… would we still be in the dark today?

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It’s a good point. How did America’s national security state miss this one? Why were the hackers allowed to gain as much ground as they did? We will likely have to sit tight for that one. Officials have said it will probably take months to conduct a full investigation.