When “vote hacking” isn’t

December 31, 2016

Just one month ago, the left was extremely concerned about “fake news” tricking people into believing false things. Here’s something they might want to look at:

  • New York Times: Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking
  • USA Today: Obama sanctions Russian officials over election hacking
  • The Guardian: Obama expels 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for US election hacking
  • AFP: US sanctions Russia over vote hacking
  • CNN: House Democrats to offer bill on Russia vote hacking
  • BBC: Republicans Ryan and McConnell back Russia vote hack probe
  • BBC: Can US election hack be traced to Russia?
  • France 24: US expels 35 Russian diplomats over election hacking
  • Fortune: Obama Administration Will Announce Response to Russian Election Hack
  • CNBC: Russia’s election hack is a serious threat to US democracy
  • Yahoo: What we know about Russia’s alleged hacking of US vote

I could go on, but you get the idea. What all of these have in common is they describe the theft of emails from John Podesta and a few others as “vote hacking” or “election hacking.” This is grossly misleading, as it suggests that, you know, the actual vote was hacked.

It’s particularly misleading as it comes on the heels on intense interest in allegations that the voting machine totals in three key states were hacked. These allegations were never substantiated (and were denied by the White House), but the idea was planted, creating fertile soil for the media’s extremely sloppy headlines.

Given all the fake news, it’s no great surprise that a recent YouGov/Economist poll found that a majority (52%) of Democrats believe that Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Trump elected.

Before the election, the media (e.g., the New York Times) were very concerned that hacking allegations could undermine confidence in the legitimacy of the election. But that was before Trump was elected. Now that Trump is elected, undermining confidence in the legitimacy of the election is the order of the day.

A campus dialogue

December 21, 2016

I firmly believe in free speech.

So do I.

Great! Let’s talk current events. I think this latest terrorist attack shows that we really need to wrestle with the danger posed by radical Islam.

You can’t say that! That’s Islamophobic!

You just said you believe in free speech.

Hate speech isn’t free speech. You can’t say things like that.

Maybe another topic. I think that the owners of private property should be able to set the rules governing their own bathrooms.

Transphobic hate speech! I am feeling so triggered right now.

Never mind. Let’s talk about Israel’s security measures. Now that ramming attacks are becoming common around the world, we can learn a lot from the steps Israel took to fight them.

Israel?! Defending genocide is not free speech!

What genocide? Anyway, the official State Department definition of anti-Semitism includes holding Israel to a standard not demanded of any other democratic nation, so aren’t you wrong-footing your own espoused opposition to hate speech?


Oh, forget current events. Anyway, we’ve invited Ben Shapiro to come speak on campus. I think you might find him interesting.

Ben Shapiro? He can’t speak here; he’s a security risk!

A security risk? He’s just one guy, and all he does is talk.

There will be riots.

Riots? Who’s going to riot?

We are.

Oh. Well, on another topic, I read an interesting story in the alternative media. It said that on the first day of the Democratic convention, they didn’t have any American flags on stage.

Stop repeating fake news.

Fake news?

Yes, that’s fake news. Snopes said so. Facebook is implementing a system to suppress that stuff.

But, you can watch the convention video and the story is true. The only flags on stage the first day were during a brief opening ceremony, hours before prime time. The flags appeared the second day, after their absence was reported.

Fake news! Snopes!

Well, if we’re going to suppress fake news, at least we’ll clean up the mainstream media too. They won’t be repeating fabricated events like “hands up, don’t shoot” which have led to a dangerous backlash against police.

No, the mainstream media is reliable.

What?! Oh never mind. Let me tell you about a project I’ve been doing. Two friends and I made a documentary about some candidates for election.

Cool, I look forward to seeing it.

Okay, great. Anyway, we formed a corporation to distribute it, it’s called—

Hold on. A corporation? Forget it. Corporations aren’t people; free speech doesn’t apply to them.

But it’s just me and two other guys. We only formed the corporation to protect ourselves against frivolous lawsuits.

Nope. No rights for corporations. Our democracy is not for sale.

But, isn’t the New York Times a corporation? Or CBS? Shouldn’t they get free speech?

Yes, but we can trust the government to suppress the right corporations.

Oooo-kay. Let’s just talk sports. I think that Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest is ill-considered, and the means of his protest is not only disrespectful to veterans but frankly ungrateful toward a nation that has given him a lot.

Why are you so opposed to free speech?

Quantitatively assessing honesty

December 3, 2016

A month after the election, people are still arguing the relative mendacity of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “Who lies more?” ought to be a quantitative question, admitting an empirical test. But as a practical matter, collecting all their statements and fact-checking them all is difficult. Worse are the methodological problems: Hillary was in politics much longer than Trump; how do you normalize for that? During the campaign, Trump spoke much more than Hillary, how do you normalize for that? What do you do with the things they said more than once?

In order to get a controlled basis for comparison, I focused on the first presidential debate. Restricting our attention to that setting addresses the practical and methodological problems. (All three would have been better, but it was too much work.) I fact-checked the entire thing, using a neutral standard that I call the “misleading” approach.

To summarize the results: Trump, Hillary, and Lester Holt were all almost exactly as truthful, when you restrict your attention to determinate claims of fact. Nevertheless, nearly everyone savaged Trump as much more dishonest than Hillary. It simply wasn’t so.

Now, I’m quite sympathetic to the notion that this was an unusual setting, and Trump is normally less honest than Hillary. But how are you going to demonstrate it? Polling the “fact-checkers” is easy but useless. The only controlled assessment I’m aware of is the one I did, and it found no difference between the two. To broaden its basis out to the entire campaign (or more) is a worthy goal, but then you would have some severe practical and methodological problems to address.