Tuesday Edition


1. Why Fighting Disinformation Doesn’t Work

Bubba’s Two Cents: It sure feels like political discourse has gotten crazier, and we’ve seen an uptick in outlandish conspiracy theorizing. But people who advocate for getting the government more involved in fighting “disinformation” should realize it’s almost guaranteed to backfire. For one thing, most disinfo fighting efforts have involved hiring people like former “Disinformation Governing Board” czar Nina Jankowicz to lead them. That’d be like conservatives appointing Daily Wire pundit Candace Owens to decide what constitutes “misinformation.” It’s the heavy handedness of institutional gatekeepers that’s led to a loss of trust in media in the first place. Leaning into this direction is just going to drive more people to alternative sources of info.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on whether the Biden administration violated the First Amendment by pushing social media platforms to take down alleged misinformation about vaccines, the 2020 election and other topics. (USA Today)

  • The case stems from a lawsuit by two GOP attorneys general accusing federal officials of secretly working with social media companies to censor “disfavored speakers” and viewpoints.

USA Today Supreme Court correspondent Maureen Groppe on the stakes of the ruling: If the justices place too many restrictions on how the government can work with private social media companies in areas such as public health, election integrity and foreign interference, it could impede efforts to stop harmful misinformation, experts say. … But if there aren’t enough guardrails, the government – whether a Democratic or Republican administration – could have too much power to influence debate in a public square dominated by social media.”

Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on Monday expressed skepticism about limiting the government’s power to communicate with platforms: “Your view has the First Amendment hamstringing the government in significant ways ... Some might say that the government actually has a duty to take steps to protect the citizens of this country, and you seem to be suggesting that that duty cannot manifest itself in the government encouraging or even pressuring platforms to take down harmful information."

But it’s not like the government is always the best arbiter of information. We all remember when top officials dismissed the COVID-19 lab leak theory.

2. Bots Are a Symptom of Our Dysfunctional Internet

Bubba’s Two Cents: Online bots spread disinformation, and sure, there is a non-zero amount of meddling in elections. But the underlying issue is that the internet’s current structure incentivizes this type of bad behavior. Bots pour gas on the fire, but that fire is already burning –– AI makes it worse by making it easier to achieve scale. And you can bet our foreign adversaries are taking notice of the vulnerability.

Before Elon Musk bought X/Twitter, he flagged the threat of bots overwhelming social media platforms. And it looks like X is currently proving out his warning. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Musk sought to crackdown on the bot problem by requiring paid verification for basic features, but it hasn’t really worked, according to researchers.

  • Cybersecurity firm CHEQ found that 75% of traffic from X to its clients’ websites was fake, a stark contrast to other platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, which had less than 3% fake traffic.

  • An analysis of 1 million tweets, conducted by a team of researchers last year, identified more than 1,305 bot accounts active during the first GOP primary debate.

  • According to a 2021 estimate, fake online users make up as much as 40% of internet traffic.

In January, a brief ChatGPT glitch exposed numerous X accounts as bots, revealing the extent of AI use in generating content on the platform.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation tech reporter James Purtill: “The internet is filling up with ‘zombie content’ designed to game algorithms and scam humans. It's becoming a place where bots talk to bots, and search engines crawl a lonely expanse of pages written by artificial intelligence (AI). Junk websites clog up Google search results. Amazon is awash with nonsense e-books. YouTube has a spam problem. And this is just a trickle in advance of what's been called the ‘great AI flood.’”

  • This is a lot of the reason we write this newsletter - to be the opposite of that.

3. Politics Is Football

Bubba’s Two Cents: There’s a funny thing happening in American politics. At the same time that we’re becoming less satisfied with the two parties, we’re in some ways becoming more partisan. For instance, the share of Republicans and Democrats who see the other side as immoral, close-minded and dishonest has spiked majorly since 2016. We also see it in the intensely tribal reaction to Donald Trump –– whether it’s critics who oppose a policy just because Trump endorses it, or Republicans who let Trump completely guide them on the issues.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll found 64% of Republicans support a bipartisan border security bill –– but that all changes once they’re told that Donald Trump opposes the deal. (Yahoo News)

Support for the bill dropped to 34% among Republicans after they learned Trump’s opinion.

We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in other areas. On the economy, views among Democrats and Republicans tend to vary widely depending on the party in power.

Some of this can be explained by the increase in partisan polarization that’s led us to have more of a “team sports” view of politics.

Chart: Pew Research Center

4. There’s No Defending School Lockdowns Anymore

Bubba’s Two Cents: Pandemic protest movements led public health officials to insist their policy measures (like lockdowns and mask mandates) were based on hard science and data. Now that the smoke has cleared, we see this was the case for some things (vaccines definitely saved lives), but not for others (the evidence seems to lean toward lockdowns having negligible effects on COVID-19 death rates). There were also clearly some tradeoffs that were ignored at the time. It’s understandable that officials and experts got some stuff wrong (the pandemic was an unprecedented event), but people are obviously going to be chuffed if you dismiss their concerns only to validate them later.

Extended school closures did not significantly prevent the spread of COVID-19 but remote learning lead to long-term educational setbacks for students, according to a New York Times analysis. (NYT)

Chart: The New York Times

Districts with longer remote learning during the 2020-21 school year saw larger drops in test scores.

  • On average, students fell more than half a grade behind in math in districts with mostly remote learning.

  • The latest test scores from spring 2023 indicate students overall have not recovered from pandemic losses.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the biggest teachers unions in the country, has been accused of failing to take responsibility for the role teachers unions played in extending school lockdowns during the pandemic.

5. The Neglected Middle Class

Bubba’s Two Cents: For a few years now, there’s been a feeling that our politics and culture has been captured by the obsessions of a relatively fringe group of people (on the left and right). It doesn’t feel like liberals or conservatives in power are doing much to speak to the middle. And if anything, it seems like the problem’s getting worse. We predict there’s going to be a big shift as people start to realize there’s opportunity in catering to this underserved group.

In a new essay for Commentary Magazine, writer Christine Rosen argues elites have waged a war on the middle class and have helped accelerate its decline. (Commentary)

The share of adults in middle-class households dropped from 61% in 1971 to 50% in 2021, per Pew Research Center.

  • The share of middle-income neighborhoods in the U.S. declined from 58% in 1970 to 41% in 2000.

  • A 2012 Pew survey found that 85% of self-described middle-class adults believe it's harder now than a decade ago to maintain their standard of living.

  • Elite educational institutions now heavily favor the wealthiest students, with children of the top 1% twice as likely to attend Ivy-Plus colleges as middle-class kids with comparable SAT/ACT scores.

Rosen: “The arbiters of culture increasingly ignore the middle to focus instead on minority groups of every stripe (the smaller and more bizarre the better), or on the tribulations of the luxury consumer. When given attention at all, the middle is treated as a bunch of exotic weirdos, despite still being the majority.Rather than be catered to by the elites who seek to make their living off their tastes and wants, the middle class is more likely to hear the elite talk about it as a problem: Middle-class Americans are racist, they complain too much about how expensive everything has become, and they won’t get on board either with the left’s social-engineering schemes or the populist right’s rage-driven apocalypticism.”

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