Media

How Fox News is prepping its audience for fascism

Since well before Donald Trump's election, Fox News has served as one of his movement's most powerful and effective propaganda outlets. In numerous ways both large and small, Fox News has mainstreamed fascist and authoritarian talking points, circulated Trump's thousands of lies and massaged, minimized or falsified the events of Jan. 6 and the ongoing coup against American democracy.

On a near-daily basis, Tucker Carlson and other Fox News hosts amplify white supremacist lies about the "Great Replacement" — even if they don't use that precise term — claiming that white people are the victims of a genocidal plot to "replace" them with nonwhites. New public opinion research shows that this type of white supremacist stochastic terrorism has been internalized by tens of millions of white Americans — specifically white Republican and Trump voters — to such an extreme that many of them are willing to condone or participate in acts of political violence in to overthrow Joe Biden's presidency and American democracy.

More than 700,000 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus pandemic -- and this is a low estimate. More than a million Americans are expected to die before the virus is brought fully under control.

Public health experts have documented the direct role that Fox News and other right-wing media have played in encouraging their audience to not be vaccinated against the coronavirus. This is part of a much larger pattern of behavior, in which Fox News has consistently fueled and amplified coronavirus denialism. In total, Fox "News" has been a public health threat, and bears both direct and indirect responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Because Fox News has such pernicious influence control over its public that it has caused discord, chaos and other forms of dysfunction — almost certainly including interpersonal violence — within families, among friends and across entire communities. When and if American democracy finally succumbs to authoritarianism, its obituary should include Fox News for helping to kill it.

For almost a decade, Jen Senko has been documenting the personal impact of Fox News on the American people. In her 2015 documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad," she showed in painstaking detail, how Fox News and the right-wing propaganda machine transformed her father into an angry, paranoid, bigoted, political extremist. Her father is only one of the millions of Americans who have fallen under the spell of Fox News and the right-wing hate machine — and by doing so became the base of support for Republican fascist movement.

In her new book, also called "The Brainwashing of My Dad," Senko continues to explore the damaging influence of Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber in America's worsening democracy crisis.

In this conversation, Senko details how Fox News functions like a type of cult that uses anger and fear to seduce and control its audience. She also explains how right-wing media creates an alternate universe that offers meaning, community and friendship for the confused, alienated and lonely people — predominantly older white men — who are its primary audience. Senko shares more personal anecdotes about how Fox News and its allied media have destroyed loving relationships,. She also warns that Fox News is priming its audience for political violence to support Donald Trump and the Republican-fascist ongoing coup attempt.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

With your documentary, you tried to warn the American people that Fox News and the right-wing media are an extreme danger to the country. But here we are several years later, with America's democracy crisis continuing to escalate as the right has increasingly embraced fascism. How do you feel watching this disaster?

Right now, I'm very, very frustrated. When I made the documentary, I was naïve. I thought to myself, "I'm going to save the world. I'm going to save America." It was cathartic for me to make "The Brainwashing of My Dad."

Now the American people are like the frog in the boiling water. It was lukewarm at first, nice and comfy, and they were all just splashing around a little bit. Then the water gets hotter, and they don't notice. By the time they notice, it's too late and they're boiling.

Given all that has happened and is happening with Trump and the Republicans, my feelings are now panic and despair. I always still have a seed of hope. There are many more people now who did get the message that I was trying to explain about Fox News and where the country was headed. I also have hope because it seems that more Americans are organized to resist.

What do people outside Trump World and the MAGAverse — or who are just generally in denial about the existential threat the country is facing — not understand about what's happening?

Too many people still do not seem to get that what the Republicans and Trump are doing to undermine democracy was long in the planning. It is all like an octopus and it has many tentacles. The head of the octopus is the media.

As fast as perhaps the FBI can catch those who are working to betray the country and commit treason, Fox News is everywhere. There truly is a vast right-wing conspiracy, as Hillary Clinton described it back in the 1990s. This is true whether you like it or not.

Basically, a bunch of oligarchs, evangelicals, racists, mega-corporations and right-wing libertarians got together and planned how they could get rid of government and any policies that serve the public good. What they want is no public schools, no libraries, no post office, no Social Security, no public health option. These right-wing forces want privatization across the board so that they can make as much money as they want, unrestrained, and won't have to pay taxes. Then these same forces got control of the media, and could inject their message right into the public's collective mind.

This right-wing movement also did other things too, such as running for school boards and in other local elections. They used gerrymandering and created a panic about nonexistent voter fraud. But it is the right-wing media that drives the campaign. What shocks me the most is that most Americans still do not understand the big picture.

In your documentary, you showed in painful detail how Fox News and the right-wing machine literally changed your father's personality into a person you no longer recognized. Other Americans have experienced this — perhaps millions of them. What is your dad an example of? How do we understand what Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber did to him as representative of a much larger phenomenon?

My father was seduced by the anger and the excitement. People know that something's wrong, that the system is rigged somehow, but they don't give much thought to how. My father was also retiring from his job, and he found the right-wing media. This gave him something to occupy his mind and thoughts.

Now, suddenly, there's all this excitement in his life. There is some right-wing media person telling him that the government is in his personal business too much. There are very persuasive big personalities pushing my father's buttons and those of the audience in general. And you know what? That feels good. There is an addictive quality to anger like that. It was exciting for my father. It also provided him a group to belong to.

I believe that a lot of white men feel like, "Well, what am I supposed to do? And who am I?" They needed help in figuring themselves out, and the right-wing media and that world provided it. Too many such men developed a victim mentality, telling themselves, "I'm a victim, I'm mad, I've always wanted to fight back."

How was Fox News and the right-wing media machine able to take people such as your father and get them to a point where they would support a coup or political terrorism or conspiracy theories like QAnon? Were they always prone to such behavior or did Fox News and the right-wing machine make them that way?

On Twitter, a lot people will say to me, usually Democrats or liberals, "Oh, these people, they were always like that. They're just finding a port to park their boat in now." I do not believe that is necessarily true.

My dad hadn't been racist. He hadn't been anti-"illegal immigrant." After listening to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, he got brainwashed. When I made the documentary, I did not know if I believed in brainwashing. Now I know that brainwashing does exist, it is real.

There's the brainwashing that happens through force, what we were all familiar with from movies. But what Fox News and the larger right-wing are doing is brainwashing by stealth. I believe this to be more insidious. There's only one type of information going into the brain. There's isolation. There is repetition. That is how they brainwash their public.

I feel like there has been a massive brainwashing campaign, something unlike anything we've ever seen before in this country. That's what's happened in America through Fox News and the right-wing media and movement.

Through your website and other outreach, many people have contacted you about how Fox News and the right-wing media machine have impacted their relationships. What are some of the common themes you are seeing?

One of them is anger. The relative, the loved one, the friend, whoever it may be, suddenly is angry more and more, it's their predominant mood. These people also become very argumentative. Many of these people who are watching Fox and are part of the right-wing echo chamber are incapable of having conversations that somehow do not turn to politics. They become obsessed with this new right-wing way of thinking. It becomes the person's mission. It is all of who they are.

What are some personal stories that jump out at you?

A woman recently shared with me how her husband was a good, sweet guy and a really quiet person. Right before Trump ran for office and became president, he started watching Fox News and his personality completely changed. He would yell at her and their child more. He would criticize her, his wife, because she was a Democrat, yell at her, yell at her kid, start criticizing her. The husband was becoming emotionally abusive.

The woman who reached out to me was afraid that it was going to traumatize her child and that she might have to leave her husband. She was really sad about it because she had once been very much in love with him.

Another person who contacted me lost several members of her family to COVID. Her father still wouldn't get the vaccine. He got COVID, and still wouldn't get the vaccine — or said he wouldn't — and he died because Tucker Carlson and other people on Fox News were telling people like him not to get vaccinated.

What is going on, emotionally and cognitively, where someone would listen to a person on TV who is telling them to do things that will cause them personal harm, that will hurt their family members, friends and other people they care about?

They're not thinking rationally. The part of their brain called the amygdala has been hijacked. That is the fight-or-flight part of the brain. When it is activated, the cerebral cortex is not functioning 100 percent. These people are responding from panic. In that moment, they go to the source that they have learned to trust. That source, in this case Fox News, is telling them, "You can only trust us." That source is angry all the time. It tells its public that the government has screwed them over and the politicians that have screwed them over. The response to Fox News and the right-wing machine actually becomes something physiological.

How does Fox News make friends with its viewers? Because what Fox News and other right-wing propaganda outlets are doing on a fundamental level is establishing an intimate relationship with their public.

There is a feeling that there is an in-group and an out-group. Fox and other parts of the right-wing media make their audience feel special, like they are in on something special. It is a very seductive feeling. Being part of a tribe makes people feel safer. That dynamic is also an example of groupthink.

Many Fox viewers and people who consume that right-wing media just want to belong to the group, to think the same way as everyone else in the group. You trust your people. You don't want to doubt them. They are your friends.

Are the people who watch Fox News awake, or are they asleep?

I think they're in a trance. They are definitely not awake. They're almost on autopilot. They are going to accept anything they are told by Fox.

Why would anyone listen to Fox News, or the right-wing echo chamber more generally, telling them to hurt people, to engage in violence? Why would a formerly reasonable person listen to these commands? What has gone wrong with them?

Because they are in such a rage. They are primed to take that next step. They're in such a rage because they believe, in their heart of hearts, that the 2020 election was stolen away from Trump. They really believe that their country is being taken over illegitimately.

Mix that in with the rage that they already have, where for example they truly believe, "Democrats are horrible, they're the devil's spawn. Anything that's wrong in my life is because of them. Now they're stealing the election, they stole my guy who speaks to me, who's like me." They're just ready to fight.

Trump accuses Bill Barr and Mark Zuckerberg of stealing Pennsylvania election in angry letter to WSJ

Former President Donald Trump accused Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his own former Attorney General William Barr of helping to steal Pennsylvania's election in 2020 in an angry letter written to the Wall Street Journal.

Specifically, Trump took issue with a WSJ editorial published on Monday that accurately claimed Biden defeated Trump by more than 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania.

"Well actually, the election was rigged, which you, unfortunately, still haven't figured out," Trump claimed. "Here are just a few examples of how determinative the voter fraud in Pennsylvania was."

The former president then went through a series of previously debunked claims about "fraud" in Pennsylvania's election, which also included two claims about Barr and Zuckerberg.

"Attorney General Bill Barr ordered U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain to stand down and not investigate election irregularities," Trump complained in one part of the letter. "Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook poured over $17 million to interfere in the Pennsylvania election, including $5.5 million on "ballot processing equipment" in Philadelphia and $552,000 for drop boxes where the voting pattern was not possible."

Trump also cited standard claims about "phantom" voters of the kind that were debunked in the Arizona "audit" of the 2020 race, as well as "numerous reports and sworn affidavits attested to poll watcher intimidation and harassment, many by brute force."

Read the whole letter here.

'I want you gone. Dead': Fox News host who told audience to get COVID vaccine gets extreme hate mail

On Oct. 20, Fox News host Neil Cavuto released a statement saying that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Cavuto made it very clear in his statement that his was a breakthrough case, as he had been vaccinated against COVID-19. The fact that an on-air Fox News TV personality was vaccinated against COVID-19 was not news, as the company has some of the strictest COVID-19 vaccination policies in the private business sphere. What was news was that he went one step further and told his audience that the vaccine was a lifesaver because Cavuto himself has underlying health conditions, and credited the vaccine with saving his life.

Writing, "I hope anyone and everyone gets that message loud and clear. Get vaccinated, for yourself and everyone around you. Everyone wins," Cavuto went very hard against the prominent anti-vaxx mythology that because breakthrough COVID-19 cases exist, this means the vaccine is somehow not effective at all. Predictably, Fox News tried very hard to be the single media outlet NOT TO COVER its own host's statement, and when finally acknowledging Cavuto had tested positive, didn't report on his statement at all.

Well, Neil Cavuto has heard back from Fox News viewers and it turns out they heard about his statement—and would have preferred that he die rather than promote the vaccine.

On Monday, Cavuto appeared on a segment with one of the other dark-haired, more somber-looking, likely less popular Fox News host's shows. Once again he made a plea to viewers to set aside their partisan politics and do the right thing in the name of public health. Saying he understood that people had strong feelings about being mandated to do anything, Cavuto implored the Fox News audience to think of all the people like Neil Cavuto, who are immunocompromised (Cavuto has been very public about his decades-old multiple sclerosis diagnosis). He rightfully pointed out that while he is open about his medical conditions at his workplace, there are many people who you work around that have conditions that you are likely not aware of, and getting vaccinated can help protect them as well as you and your family.

Cavuto returned to his show on Tuesday, though he broadcasted remotely from his home, and before launching into attacking the infrastructure bill for being a "tax and spending" bill, he brought on someone to go over the reactions he's received via email for his statement on public health. Those reactions were … not shocking at all.

An important reminder here: The Fox News audience has been told in no uncertain terms that besides being "experimental" the vaccine might be poison, and might symbolize some New World Order communist plot to feed your grandchildren to Muslims that live in Jewish globalist cages inside of China and want to replace white people with atheists who believe in a Black Jesus.

One viewer who went by the name "TJ" wrote: "It's clear you've lost some weight with all this stuff. Good for you. But I'm not happy with less of you. I want 'none' of you. I want you gone. Dead. Caput. Fini. Get it? Now, take your two-bit advice, deep-six it, and you!"

A fellow named Vince Langman wrote: [sic]

Hey guys I bought a new car after being told it was the best
Then it blew up after I left the car lot
So now I'm begging everyone to please buy the same car
Sorry I'm just pretending to be Neil Cavuto

It's sort of reads like the world's worst attempt at a joke, an opinion, and a haiku, maybe? Then someone going by the moniker "Ignis, Aspiring to Aspire," wrote that:

Cavuto is the Tigger of talking heads: a head full of fluff, just not cool like Tigger.

Besides that not being the defining characteristic of Tigger, it is hard to honestly understand how this Fox News slam was supposed to work. Finally, SoylentGreenIsPeople writes that "When the asses gather, they call Cavuto boss..."

Ummm. Okaaaaaaaaaaay?

Well, in Cavuto's case, he and his colleagues have worked very hard to cultivate this warped angry reality-television viewership. So in one way, they've earned it.

Cavuto fans have an interesting way of showing support www.youtube.com

Sen. Tom Cotton gets called out for 'blatant effort' to perform for Fox News by attacking Merrick Garland

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) put on a show for the Fox News cameras Wednesday afternoon, repeatedly calling Attorney General Merrick Garland "shameful" and demanding his resignation.

Retweeting video of the Arkansas Republican's performance, CNN's congressional reporter Manu Raju revealed Cotton had told him and Punchbowl News co-founder Jake Sherman to "Get your popcorn ready."

"This is, judge, this is shameful," declared Cotton, referring to Garland as a judge instead of as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Attorney General Garland tried to defend himself, telling Cotton "that's wrong" but the performative lawmaker refused to allow him to speak, repeatedly calling him "shameful."

Further disparaging Garland, Cotton said: "Thank God you are not on the Supreme Court," reminding him how Sen. Mitch McConnell blocked him from even having a hearing after then-President Barack Obama nominated him to the nation's highest court.

Then, pointing at Garland, Cotton continued his attack, saying, "You should resign in disgrace."

Cotton wasn't apparently interested in anything Garland had to say, departing as soon as he finished his performance:

Public Notice founder Aaron Rupar notes Cotton succeeded in immediately getting on Fox News:

Judge releases Jan. 6 insurgent into parents’ custody — says no more Fox News at home

Thomas Sibick is accused of ripping off DC Metro Police Officer Michael Fanone's badge and radio during the melee that left Officer Fanone unconscious. The Buffalo, New York, resident tried to lie his way out of an arrest, after video evidence—including images of Sibick showing off a stolen riot shield after the attack—was shared with the FBI online. Sibick faces up to 15 years in prison for his part in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots and insurrection, with charges that include the assault and robbery of Officer Fanone.

On Tuesday, after being denied bond since his arrest in March, including a second denial from the same judge less than a month ago, U.S. District Judge Amy B. Jackson ordered that the 35-year-old Sibick be released into the custody of his parents, in upstate New York, on conditions. One of those conditions is that Sibick is prohibited from watching any political television shows. But there is more.

When Sibick finally turned himself in to authorities, it came after first lying about his participation in the assault on Officer Fanone, then lying about the badge and radio he took from the fallen law enforcement officer. According to one of the complaints filed by investigators, Sibick first claimed he hadn't taken anything off of the officer, then claimed he had dropped both the radio and badge immediately after grabbing them from Fanone. Then, he claims, he dropped the items into a trash bin somewhere in Washington, D.C. Sibick later told investigators that he dumped the items in a trash bin somewhere in Buffalo, New York. And finally, the government was able to produce Officer Fanone's stolen badge after Sibick told them he had buried it in the backyard of his home.

The violent nature of the charges against Sibick had all but guaranteed he would remain in jail until his hearing. His lawyer, Stephen Brennwald, has argued that Sibick is a helpful person, as attested to by jail officials. Sibick's lawyer has also argued that his client was actually trying to pull Officer Fanone to safety—not attempting to steal his badge. This argument, which was posited earlier in October in hopes of securing a release for Sibick, was denied by Judge Jackson at the time, who said: "He took his own unique, independent, purposeful action. The video clearly shows moving his left hand in and then his right hand in. Not at the same time, moving in with both hands to pull up."

According to Law & Crime, there are a few reasons Judge Jackson decided to take a chance on releasing Sibick into his parents' custody: mental health; deteriorating conditions in the jail where the January 6, dunderheads are housed (particularly for someone in a possible mental health crisis); and right-wing propaganda's heightened rhetoric and misinformation as a trigger for someone with unmanaged mental health considerations.

Specifically, Judge Jackson cited a new mental health diagnosis presented by Sibick's defense. The details of that diagnosis are not clear. Judge Jackson told Sibick during the bond hearing that she was "very glad to hear that the defendant thinks with the appropriate diagnosis, he has a handle on it now, on this new approach and new diagnosis."

Telling the court that she did not feel Sibick's ongoing detention has been a mistake, Judge Jackson explained: "His detention was not a disgrace to our country. Mr. Sibick's actions were." But that new evidence was being presented in this case, and that along with the new mental health diagnosis led the judge to make this consideration.

Sibick's lawyer submitted a letter from prison officials that said Sibick was voluntarily asking to be put "in the hole," solitary confinement, in order to stay away from other Jan. 6 insurgents and their cult-like rituals. According to Sibick's lawyer, Sibick's good behavior toward the jail staff and his reluctance to participate in the "so-called Patriot Wing of the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility's" bizarre jingoism—like singing the Star-Spangled Banner at attention every night at 9 p.m.—had led to harassment from fellow MAGAs.

"I think the court may know this but every night at 9:00 p.m., the folks there stand up and sing the Star-Spangled Banner," Brennwald said. "I was on the phone with [Sibick] a month ago and we talked, and in the middle of our talk he said 'I have to put the phone down, I'll be right back. They'll be angry of I don't go over there.'"
"It was literally this herd mentality," Brennwald added. "They're literally singing, most of them off-key, literally singing the song, almost cult-like. It was pretty scary actually."

According to Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press, who has been at the courthouse covering these hearings, Judge Jackson gave the standard warnings about no firearms in the home, and no social media interaction for Sibick. "You must continue your medical or psychiatric treatment. You're barred from possession on a firearm and you're on home incarceration except for medical or legal. You'll submit to location monitoring and pay the cost based on your ability to do so." She said that if a fixed employment opportunity presented itself, Sibick could appeal to the court for consideration and that he could go once a week with his parents to church.

Brennwald told the court that Sibick's mother is left-leaning, while his father is right-leaning. "I'll tell you this, we were finishing up our dinner last night and I asked, 'How do you get along, one a Republican and a Democrat?' And my client's father cited Reagan and Tip O'Neill. He cited Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If you ordered them not to watch TV, he would be fine with that. He would like his son home."

As for the prohibition of "political" media for Sibick, this reportedly came after Judge Jackson inquired about what media or person had helped fuel the fired-up Sibick to believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Brennwald told the judge that after consulting with his client, "I thought it might have been OANN or Newsmax, but it wasn't. It was Fox News… He was literally watching Fox News and in a manic phase that day, over a period of days."

Eugene Sibick, Thomas's father and a former Naval officer, told the judge that he no longer watched political news at home and this would not be an issue. A fundraiser set up under the name "Eugene Sibick," titled "My son is a Political Prisoner," might contradict this assertion. Whether this account belongs to the Sibick family is not verified.

Here is a video of Sibick taking both the badge and radio off of Fanone during the chaos that left Officer Fanone badly hurt.

Capitol riot video appears to show Thomas Sibick taking badge, radio from Officer Michael Fanone www.youtube.com

How Facebook exploited our cognitive flaws and biases — for profit

The public has been given insight into Facebook's business practices. Many of these disclosures have come from a whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who, in her testimony before Congress, stated: "I am here today because I believe that Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy."

The Facebook leaks have shown, among other things, that the company provided a breeding ground for right-wing extremism. For example, Facebook's own researchers determined that a fake user who was tagged as "Conservative, Christian, Trump-supporting" would be hit by a deluge of conspiratorial and racist propaganda within days of joining the platform. Similarly, in India, over the course of only a few days, a fake user was inundated with anti-Pakistani rhetoric, such as, "300 dogs died now say long live India, death to Pakistan."

How did Facebook's algorithms radicalize users across the globe?

We don't have the complete answers, but here's what we do know: Facebook designed algorithms that played upon a web of human cognitive biases and social dynamics to maximize engagement and derive profit. And the very factors that made these algorithms profitable also made them a veritable petri dish for extremism.

To understand this, we can first reflect on the underlying psychological mechanisms that the company exploited.

We, as social creatures, are subject to multiple forces that shape the information we consume and our social interactions.

  • Confirmation bias: We seek out information that confirms our beliefs rather than that which would falsify them.
  • Congeniality bias: We seek out supportive behavior from others who affirm our beliefs.
  • Emotional bias: We favor emotional information over neutral information in general. We favor engaging with negative content over positive content, especially on social media.

These biases then lead us to self-select into groups. We want to interact with people who agree with us. We want affirmation. We bond over powerful emotions, rather than neutral facts.

Once we join groups of like-minded people, we are subject to multiple effects that arise from our interactions with other group members. Within a group, we are less likely to express dissenting opinions than we are to express agreement. Further, we are driven to not just agree, but to rather make more elaborate points. These tendencies can be benign, or even productive, but research has also shown that, over time, the confluence of agreement and elaboration can be detrimental: specifically, the more members of a group speak about a topic about which they all agree, the more extreme their rhetoric becomes.

None of us are immune to these pressures, including myself. I'll hesitate before expressing dissent within a given social group, whereas I'll feel bolstered when I express agreement. When I express agreement, I'm rarely enticed to say, "Yes, I agree;" rather, I feel inclined to offer an elaboration. This is all ordinary human behavior.

However, biases and behaviors become pernicious within the domains of bigotry and conspiracy theories. If a group rewards members for bigotry, they will engage in more frequent and extreme acts of bigotry. If the group rewards members for the brilliance of a conspiracy theory, members will increasingly elaborate on the conspiracy theory.

What does all of this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook made specific algorithmic choices that not only facilitated these psycho-social phenomena, but exploited and amplified them. Why? Because appealing to biases and group behavior leads to user engagement. User engagement, in turn, leads to greater profit.

Facebook is still not fully transparent about its algorithms, but here is what we do know: Before a user views a given piece of information — whether it's a news report or a post from another person — that information gets filtered to maximize the user's engagement.

To achieve this, the algorithm evaluates a person's profile and provides them with information that conforms to a user's identity. It also down-weights — or, frankly, suppresses — information that disconfirms the user's priors. This entails that if a user expresses doubt about vaccines, they will see more doubt about vaccines rather than pro-vaccine arguments. If a user expresses bigotry, they will see more bigotry, rather than anti-bigotry arguments. This aspect of Facebook's algorithm thus relies heavily on confirmation bias to engage users.

But the algorithm's cognitive tricks don't end there.

In 2017, Facebook made the decision to give five times more weight to posts that elicited extreme emotional reactions — such as rage or love — than posts that elicited mere likes. This decision exploited biases towards emotional valence. The company also decided to double down on promoting group membership to combat a decline in engagement. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, wrote: "There is a real opportunity to connect more of us with groups that will be meaningful social infrastructure in our lives . . . that can strengthen our social fabric."

At the same time, researchers warned that Facebook's group dynamics could be a hotbed of extremism. In 2018, one researcher went so far as to state group algorithms produced bot-like behavior among humans and introduced "radicalization via the recommendation engine."

As we know from psychology, if you are in a social group, you are societally rewarded for increasingly extreme behavior. But, on Facebook, you're not just rewarded by other members of the group, you're also rewarded by the company itself. When you get a lot of likes from your group, Facebook rewards you. When you post something that elicits more extreme responses, such as anger, Facebook rewards you even more. As one internal Facebook report stated, "Our algorithms exploit the human brain's attraction to divisiveness."

Furthermore, Facebook decided to show group members unrelated posts from other members of the same group. This inevitably led to an interconnected web of extremist ideologies. Research has shown that once a Facebook member joins one extremist group — such as flat-earthing — Facebook will recommend they join interconnected groups, such as those pertaining to anti-vaxxing or chem-trails.

And, if group membership correlates with white supremacy, users will start to see that, too. As one researcher put it, "The groups recommendation engine is a conspiracy correlation index."

When we look at all of this, it becomes clear how Facebook's specific choices to maximize engagement facilitates a snowball of interconnected conspiracy theories and radicalization. Users are shown information that confirms their beliefs. They are encouraged to engage with others who share those beliefs. They are furthermore rewarded for increasingly extreme posts. And, then, when they engage in one extremist group, they will be exposed to several others.

Perhaps, one could argue, Facebook shouldn't be held too accountable here. They are a company that is trying to make money. Their ability to make money is dependent on engagement. They didn't design the algorithm with the explicit purpose to encourage radicalization.

This excuse falls apart the moment one realizes that, for years, Facebook was warned by people both inside and outside the company that their algorithms led to the rise of right-wing extremism globally.

What we now know is that Facebook drew people in based on their relationships with friends and family, and then it exploited specific cognitive biases in order to maximize engagement with other content.

We know the company made choices it was warned could lead to radicalization globally. The company not only ignored these warnings, but suppressed evidence by their own researchers that demonstrated dire predictions about the algorithm were coming to fruition.

We know radical content led to more engagement, which, in turn, was good for the company's bottom line. Facebook is therefore culpable of not only exploiting human beings' ordinary cognitive biases, but knowingly encouraging political extremism for profit.

'Troubling questions': Madison Cawthorn called out by local paper over ties to Jan 6th protest

The editorial board of a prominent North Carolina publication is taking aim at Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) following the release of a damning Rolling Stone report detailing his alleged connection to events that transpired on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol.

The Rolling Stone report suggests that organizers of the "Stop the Steal" rally were in communication with the freshman lawmaker and his staff as well as other Republication lawmakers while they planned the event.

Cawthorn's alleged connection to the rally organizers raises "serious questions" about his possible culpability. The latest report has prompted a review by the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol riots and former President Donald Trump's level of accountability.

Tthe News Observer has released an editorial sharing its reaction to the report about Cawthorn.

The publication wrote that "that two organizers of the Jan. 6 protests have told congressional investigators that 'multiple members of Congress were intimately involved in planning both Trump's efforts to overturn his election loss and the Jan. 6 events that turned violent.'"

They added, "Rolling Stone said the organizers, speaking anonymously, named seven Republican members of Congress who joined, either directly or through their staffers, in the effort to overturn the election. Republican North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn was among those named."

Although Cawthorn's office has already waived off the reports and denied the allegations, News Observer editors believe further investigation is certainly necessary.

"Anyone who truly cares about democracy knows it is threatened by the authoritarian instincts of Trump and his followers, and by Republicans who are too timid to stand against that threat. Elected officials like Cawthorn are not simply zealots or cranks. They are the start of what could become an anti-democratic wave that would have a white and wealthy minority preside over the nation against the popular will."

They concluded writing, "Now, the committee must uncover who those bad actors are — and how many of them are from North Carolina."

Scathing Miami Herald editorial torches Ron DeSantis: 'We thought things couldn't get much worse — we were wrong'

One Miami, Florida-based newspaper is refusing to let up on its unrelenting criticism of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as the COVID-19 pandemic continues across state.

On Monday, October 15, the Miami Herald released a scathing editorial blasting the Republican governor for his failures on COVID-19.

"We thought things couldn't get much worse in DeSantis' handling of the pandemic, but we were wrong — then we were wrong again," the newspaper surmised. "Just when you think he's done enough to undermine our chances of exiting a pandemic that has killed nearly 60,000 Floridians, he has a new trick up his sleeve."

The newspaper expressed concern about DeSantis' continued efforts thwart President Joe Biden's COVID vaccine plan. When Biden announced updates for the vaccine mandate, the Republican governor quickly pounced to undermine the Biden administration's efforts.

As part of his latest pushback, DeSantis is now looking at the possibility of holding companies "liable for medical harm that results from mandatory vaccinations, even though millions of vaccines have safely been administered in the United States," the Herald wrote.

The newspaper went on to explain how the Florida governor became a voice for anti-vaxxers. Over the last four months, DeSantis has taken some of the most drastic measures out of all Republican governors to block the Biden administration's initiatives to improve vaccination rates and slow the spread of COVID-19. From placing bans on mask and vaccine mandates to prohibiting requirements for vaccine passports, DeSantis insists his efforts are justifiable.

However, the Herald argues otherwise noting that his actions appear to be deeply politicized.

"DeSantis has for months tried to walk the tight rope between pleasing anti-vaxxers and not undermining the vaccines his own administration has distributed," it added. "If there was any doubt of which side he favors, Thursday's announcement put the nail in the coffin."

The Facebook papers spur more calls to 'break them up!'

"The Facebook Papers" on Monday prompted longtime critics of Big Tech to renew demands for policymakers within and beyond the United States to crack down on and even break up the social media giant.

A consortium of 17 American news outlets—along with a separate group of European newsrooms—on Friday began publishing articles on internal documents obtained by former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen, though much of the reporting was released Monday.

"It's an important day to read the news," said the American Economic Liberties Project, pointing to the Facebook Papers and reiterating its call to break up the company.

The reporting shows Facebook prioritizes growth and profit over trying to prevent and contain problematic content. As The Verge summarized, key findings include that Facebook "was caught off guard" by Covid-19 vaccine misinformation, it struggled to handle efforts to delegitimize the 2020 U.S. election, and Apple threatened to ban its apps over online "slave markets."

Echoing reactions to a second whistleblower submitting a complaint about the company to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Friday, Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, declared that "Facebook can't be reformed."

"We can and should push for policies that reduce its immediate harm to marginalized communities in the short term," she said Monday. "But in the long term, we need policies that reduce its power, so that we can build alternatives to fully abolish and replace it."

"Before it was acquired by Facebook, Instagram actually tried to improve quality instead of just increasing virality at all costs," tweeted Fordham University School of Law professor Zephyr Teachout. "Break them up!"

Facebook bought the photo- and video-sharing platform Instagram in 2012 then acquired the messaging service WhatsApp two years later. The company is also responsible for the highly popular Messenger application.

The Real Facebook Oversight Board (RFOB) framed the new reporting as vindication of Haugen's recent public comments.

"Today's avalanche of leaks, revelations, and reporting blasts apart Facebook's spin that Frances Haugen was 'cherry picking' documents," the RFOB statement said. "Across 17 news organizations, dozens of journalists, and thousands of documents, the Facebook Papers and Frances Haugen's continued testimony have laid bare the extreme harm and devastating impacts of Facebook."

"In breathtaking detail, the Facebook Papers show a company that is in the thrall of right-wing extremists, so afraid of looking 'partisan' that they welcome insurrectionists, racists, and disinformation artists onto their platforms under the guise of free speech," the RFOB continued. "Ignoring house on fire warnings from their own staff and lying to regulators and their own oversight board, we now see Facebook for what it really is: an international criminal enterprise."

The RFOB called for an independent investigation:

The Facebook Papers also reveal the absolute inadequacy of Facebook's oversight board, fiddling while Rome burns and begging the company to stop lying. As MP and RFOB member Damian Collins said today in Parliament, the "hindsight board" lacks the independence and mandate to hold Facebook accountable when it needs oversight the most. As new allegations cascade down around Facebook, the oversight board by design has no authority to intervene.
We reject the premise that the Facebook oversight board can ever be considered independent.
Instead, at this defining moment of crisis for Facebook and democracy, we call for a full, independent, outside investigation of Facebook and the allegations raised in the Facebook Files, the Facebook Papers, and recent SEC filings. In the U.S., the U.K., and the E.U., policymakers should fast-track legislation to ensure permanent, independent oversight of Facebook. No criminal should appoint its own judge and jury, as Facebook has done with its oversight board.

Haugen's testimony to the U.K. Parliament on Monday resembled what she recently told U.S. lawmakers about Facebook: that it "fans hate," the "current system is biased towards bad actors, and people who push people to the extremes," and the company has been "negligent" in terms of addressing concerns raised internally by its own data scientists for years.

Employing language often used by critics of Big Oil's climate lies, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Monday that "there's a lot to discover in these papers about how the platform promotes extremism and hurts our communities, but here's what is clear: Facebook knew."

"For too long, tech companies have said, 'Trust us, we've got this.' Now the extent to which Facebook has put profits over people is becoming more and more clear," said Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust panel.

"The time has come for action from all sides to rein in Big Tech," she asserted, calling for modernizing competition laws, holding companies accountable for spreading disinformation, and federal privacy legislation "with rules of the road for tech platforms to protect user data and ensure that algorithms stop promoting toxic and dangerous content."

How Bernie Sanders pierced the conservative propaganda shaping the Biden's Build Back Better bill

The unfolding drama over a legislative battle within the Democratic Party to pass a massive bill encompassing desperately needed social services has revealed the power of narrative in our political landscape. It is not enough to put forward policy proposals that actually help people, paid for by those who can afford to pay (the wealthiest), and then try to pass those proposals into law. Relentless propaganda from conservative think tanks and their partner media outlets against the idea of government funding people's needs has been so successful that it requires equally powerful counternarratives by progressives.

Now, several progressive lawmakers are working on such counternarratives. Senator Bernie Sanders' office recently released a statement pointing out that many Americans know about the cost of the Build Back Better bill—an omnibus piece of legislation that embodies much of President Joe Biden's agenda—but know little about what the bill actually includes and how it would benefit a majority of Americans.

Sanders was likely referring to an October 10 CBS News/YouGov survey revealing that nearly 60 percent of those polled knew that bill was priced at $3.5 trillion but only a paltry 10 percent knew the contents of the bill in great detail. The poll also revealed that those who knew the bill's contents were more likely to support it, and found strong majority support for specific aspects of the bill.

Sanders specifically called out journalists, saying that a top reason for the prevailing ignorance of the bill's contents is that "the mainstream media has done an exceptionally poor job in covering what actually is in the legislation." He said his hope was that "mainstream media will fulfill their responsibilities."

Unfortunately, media pundits continued to make Sanders' point by doubling down on the costs of the Build Back Better bill. Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg responded to Sanders' statement by resorting to a familiar trope with an op-ed whose headline said that "no one really wants to pay for it." Goldberg wrote, "Americans in general don't want to pay much of anything for the stuff progressives constantly say America is demanding."

Another columnist in the Hill, Alfredo Ortiz, made a similar claim, going as far as saying, "the more that Americans learn about this historic tax and spending plan, the more they seem to oppose it." Ortiz is the president and CEO of the Job Creators Network, a conservative pro-business advocacy group.

However, when asked, Americans know exactly who they would like to see paying for the bill—the rich. A Vox and Data for Progress poll concluded that 71 percent of those polled want to raise taxes on the nation's richest 2 percent in order to pay for the bill—an inconvenient fact for the bill's naysayers.

One columnist in a mainstream corporate outlet did respond responsibly to Sanders' demand for better media coverage. Helaine Olen of the Washington Post wrote that "We (the public, journalists and some lawmakers) have focused more on the cost of the package than its contents—even though our society is all but starved of supports that other first-world nations take for granted."

Olen went on to detail how the bill makes permanent the expanded child tax credit that Democrats pushed through earlier this year. She explained in layperson terms how child care assistance would help families and how the government could negotiate down drug prices and fund home health care for the nation's elderly, if the bill were to pass.

In an interview, Olen admits that the criticism Sanders leveled at the mainstream media is, "certainly valid on its face." Although she and others were covering the Build Back Better bill on a daily basis, Americans turning on their television news would "probably hear the horse-race debate" of intraparty battles among Democrats, and "very rarely will you hang around to hear what's actually in the bill."

She too maintains that "what's in the bill is actually quite popular, and a lot of people would actually like it quite a bit."

Like Sanders in the Senate, House Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and her colleagues Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Katie Porter (D-CA) have also been engaged in narrative work, publishing an op-ed at CNN explaining why they're going to bat over the bill and actually laying out elements of the bill.

Jayapal, in particular, has been whipping up support for the bill, arguably working harder than President Biden himself in order to promote and enact his agenda.

But Biden, rather than using his presidential bully pulpit to whip his colleagues into line (as Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump so effectively showed is possible), has already started to cave on the popular bill. He has begun shopping around a much-diminished version of the bill, now priced at a mere $2 trillion, acting as more of a mediator than a leader.

Obscenely, this is a similar amount by which the nation's richest billionaires have seen their wealth increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olen explains that, "for the past several decades, we've been used to this conversation where progressives are considered to be out in the wilderness and people are appealing to some mythical centrist voters." In trying to get opposing sides of his party members to meet in the middle on the Build Back Better bill, Biden is buying into this myth.

Olen says, "We've always had this dynamic where it seems that the progressives need to give and the centrists are 'the reasonable people.'" But, she adds, this is a myth. In reality, "the centrist voter would really like to see pharmaceutical price negotiations and child care support."

Among lawmakers, "the progressives are the reasonable group, and it's the centrists that are out of touch with the mainstream of the Democratic Party," says Olen. She sees so-called centrists like Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) as, "out of touch with a huge chunk of the American public, and [they] are the ones really saying, 'my way or the highway.'"

It is a point that Sanders made in calling out Manchin by name in a recent op-ed in saying that the West Virginian was among those senators who "remain in opposition" to the Build Back Better bill. Manchin shot back on Twitter denouncing Sanders as, "a self-declared independent socialist."

For almost every claim that conservatives like Manchin—and he really ought to be called a conservative, not a centrist—make, there is a strong counterpoint that can and should be raised in defense of government spending on ordinary Americans. For example, while Manchin cited rising inflation as a reason against government spending, think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute, and numerous Nobel Prize-winning economists say that the Build Back Better bill would ease inflation.

Those seeking to squeeze Americans while boosting corporate profits and the wealth of the richest few have for years poured resources into shaping a false narrative that people don't want tax revenues to be used to pay for things that people need. It's time to expose and upend such a regressive theory.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

'You're a clown': Fox News viewers have a MAGA meltdown after Chris Wallace praises Jen Psaki

Chris Wallace is one of the few people at Fox News who doesn't simply recite the Trumpian party line, and MAGA Republicans are furious with the Fox host for his recent praise of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

On his program "Fox News Sunday," Wallace liked the fact that his Fox News colleague Peter Doocy often gave Psaki a hard time during White House press conferences — and he praised Psaki for not backing down, describing her as "one of the best press secretaries ever."

Wallace praised Doocy as well and compared him to ABC News' Sam Donaldson, who had a reputation for being a bulldog of a reporter when he was covering the Reagan White House during the 1980s. The Fox News host said of Doocy, "I mean this as a compliment. I think he has become the Sam Donaldson of this White House press corps…. And since I was working in the press corps when Sam Donaldson was there, that's a very grudging compliment on my part."

But the fact that Wallace praised Doocy isn't what knee-jerk Trumpians are focusing on; the very fact that he said anything nice about President Joe Biden's White House press secretary set off a MAGA meltdown.

ACT For America's Brigitte Gabriel tweeted:

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