Monday, November 13, 2017

The New Megaphone

A group with more time on its hands than most of us is tracking the Russian social media that allegedly interfered with our 2016 election. It's an impressive array of stuff aimed to take advantage of American divisions and identity politics.

Meanwhile, people on the right and the left continue to say "No votes were changed" by this particular kind of interference, as though only direct hacking into voting machines could make a difference, as though messaging has no relevance to political choices, as though the election of a brainless oligarch were inevitable because [Hillary/Amerika/blue collar jobs/your best guess here].

Of course, that is bullshit. And now I know it's bullshit, because I have witnessed close at hand how easily an election can be hijacked using only social media. Our recent NYS Constitutional Convention vote was a test case in this brave new world of issue-branding.

Now, NYS has voted against holding a Convention before. In 1858, 1916, 1957, 1977, 1997—people decided against it  for a variety of reasons. But that was before we were the land of indictments, fighting Illinois for the title of Most Corrupt State in the Union.

Take a look at how polls rated the likelihood of a yes vote on the ConCon over the course of 2017. From 64-24 percent YES in August to 57-25 percent NO in November—that's a massive swing in a short period of time. What caused it? Did NYS clean up its act? Did the legislature convince people that it could police itself and pass the amendments the people requested? Not exactly.


I started seeing social media posts from NYSUT back in early summer, along with posts from a group that called itself New Yorkers Against Corruption, a slick name for an organization that actually fought to retain New York corruption and the status quo. If you go to NYAC's website, you find, in the small print, a contact called Thomas Meara at a company called Kivvit. By its own admission, Kivvit "designs and manages campaigns with the issue and client outcome in mind." It is a large PR firm that works for clients such as Ford and Comcast. Tom Meara himself has an interesting resume and has done union work.

The main thrust of NYSUT's and NYAC's posts was that a ConCon would eliminate public employee pensions. This rapidly evolved online, in the thrilling game of Telephone that social media mirrors, into the ConCon's taking away existing pensions. As far as I can tell, the unions were the only ones suggesting this as a probable result of the ConCon. Since no delegates yet existed, nobody was touting the removal of pensions as a campaign promise. In a state with nearly half a million people employed in el-hi education alone, the threat of pension reform is significant. It didn't matter whether the method was simply voting to eradicate public pensions, or voting to allow the money from the pension fund to be used for other purposes—both of which I saw described online—the threat galvanized a NO vote with public employees and rapidly moved via shares and retweets to involve supporters of teachers, supporters of fire fighters (rarely the same people), and many people for whom a pension was just a distant dream. It did not matter that the NYS pension system has gone through radical changes via legislation and renegotiation, from Tier 1 now to Tier 6. The thought of putting their hard-earned coin in the People's hands was more than public employees could bear.

The high point of the union blitz, as far as I'm concerned, came when a union leader went on the radio to tout a no vote to keep big money out of politics. The money spent by the unions in opposition far exceeded any money put up by ConCon supporters. It is worth remembering that the unions, in conjunction with a few other groups, were primarily responsible for the failure of the vote in 1997 as well, back when we had no examples like Wisconsin to suggest that New York might screw its public workforce.


At the same time that this Save the Pension social media blitz was going on, environmental groups were sharing their own Save Forever Wild concerns via social media. For every ten pension posts I saw, there was perhaps one environmental post. And whenever I mentioned that Forever Wild had in fact been created via Constitutional Conventions in 1894 and 1938, I got a flurry of lists of Good Guy Conservation Agencies who were urging a no vote. This despite the fact that we've been chipping away at Forever Wild legislatively over the last decades.


It's worth thinking about how Facebook works. My tendency to click on political and educational posts means that Facebook is eager to throw political and educational posts my way. That might easily explain the ten-to-one pension posts I saw compared to environmental posts. But my guess is that money talked, and the unions spent so much that it was only natural that pension posts overwhelmed environmental posts even on the feeds of environmentalists. It would be interesting to compare notes.


Somewhere around late August, I started reading posts urging a no vote because the Mercers, Steve Bannon, and ReclaimNY were urging a yes vote. This one took off like wildfire, multiplying throughout the intertubes like the zombie apocalypse. Attaching the names Mercer and Bannon to anything was enough to electrify the left. It did not matter one bit that ReclaimNY had actually decided to back down on their initial tendency to vote yes because they did not trust that existing legislators would not be delegates. The entire Constitutional Convention was now an alt-right conspiracy.


Some of this Mercer thing was a corruption of an actual Mercer-led blueprint for holding a Constitutional Convention via Article V—of the U.S. Constitution, not the NYS Constitution. There is a difference. One is a literary work of genius. The other is a pedestrian how-to document. Perhaps misled by this conflation, people started posting in the fall about "saving our constitution," as though something that tells us how bingo and lotto are to be regulated were a precious work of art. By this point, it was no longer clear to me who was behind any of the posts I was reading. The "no" signs all over the state were union-bought, but the many tentacles of nuttiness now crowding out the pension and Forever Wild stories seemed to be spontaneous.


Shot down rather quickly late last summer, but too late to do any actual good, was the notion that a ConCon would cost the people of New York $300 million. The Rockefeller Institute, which tried like Peter at the dike to poke their fingers in all the holes erupting around the ConCon, found this erroneous number perpetrated by various public officials. Although a series of stories appeared in media around the state saying that the number was specious and probably five or six times the real cost, the truth mattered little by that point.


In 1997, hero and would-be Assembly reformer Richard Brodsky strongly supported the Constitutional Convention against his legislative leadership, and so did Governor Mario Cuomo. As ConCons make strange bedfellows, they were joined in their yes votes by Tom Golisano, Rudy Giuliani, and ChangeNY. This year, you had to look long and hard to find a legislator in favor of the Convention, and although Governor Andrew Cuomo pretended to lean yes, he danced a little sidestep the day before the vote and announced his plan to vote no.


The weirdest motif that occurred late in the battle was the one that suggested that our system of altering the Constitution worked fabulously well as it was. I've written before about how bizarre this logic was. In just a few months, we had entirely lost the thread of corruption and dysfunction and landed in a place where all was well, so why rock the boat.


If you don't believe votes can be changed by persistent, false messaging, I give you New York State from August through November of 2017. I believe that if "yes" organizations had been quicker on the uptake (and had unlimited funds and a great PR firm), they could have fought back with credible arguments and changed some minds, or at least retained their original advantage. As it was, they mostly wrung their hands and ceded the field. Those of us who watch NYS politics with a jaded eye (and who have actually read the Constitution) could only stomp out miscellaneous flareups with no hope of actually ending the firestorm. New York now gets to putz around until 2037, content in the knowledge that its people don't really want substantial change. And maybe Russia will hire Kivvit in 2018—I'm sure they'll accept rubles if the price is right.


  1. I dunno. About the Russia thing, I mean. What difference does it make where the disinformation comes from? Would we be OK with what happened last year had it come from Koch-funded operatives in the basement warren of an Oklahoma compound? Our elective process depends on voters assessing information and making choices. Either we trust voters with that task or we need a different system. One gains appreciation for why the "founding fathers" didn't provide for direct election of either the president or senators. They didn't trust people to be able to make those decisions. Where do we stand on that issue? Have we given up on it? If not, then I think we need to pay less attention to where disinformation comes from and more attention to what needs to be done to limit its potential for damage regardless of source.

    As for the Con Con, I wasn't at all surprised. People have a bunker mentality, more afraid of what they'll lose than what they might gain. This is reinforced by Democratic Party leadership with no message and no fight. A Democratic candidate for local office knocked on my door a few weeks ago and in response to my question of why she was opposed to the Con Con began with "I'm afraid..." That's the Democratic Party in a nutshell, and people pick up the scent. Fear, like courage, is contagious.

  2. I don't disagree with any of your assessment. No, it doesn't matter where the disinformation comes from, and fear = inertia. I'm surprised about the Dem candidate, though—at least our county reps came out in favor.

  3. Different locality. Not a Tompkins County Dem candidate. Sorry for the misdirection.