Column: The Country’s Very Foundations Are Shaking

  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

For the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Thursday, September 06, 2018

The co-founder of Twitter, St. Louis native Jack Dorsey, on Wednesday had this assessment: “Abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, misinformation campaigns and divisive filter bubbles.

“That’s not a healthy public square.”

Dorsey was talking about Twitter before the Senate Intelligence Committee. But he could have been describing all of the public square this week. The divisions and distrust of 2018 roiled through new media, sparked by the world’s top tweeter, a president who won in 2016 while harnessing the power of Twitter, and whose very stability has been newly called into question by the denizen of old media, Bob Woodward.

The explosive claims in Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, were buttressed Wednesday in anonymous editorial in The New York Times, which the paper said was penned by a senior Trump adviser, that described the president as amoral, and “not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”

Simultaneously, the Supreme Court hearings of Brett Kavanaugh have been frequently buffeted by loud protests, with women dressed as handmaids lining Senate office byways leading to the hearing room. The committee members can’t even agree on how to describe the protests.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a primary Kavanaugh critic, called the protests the “noise of democracy.” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, labeled them “mob rule.”

In Wednesday’s Intelligence Committee hearing, Dorsey and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg both admitted they and their companies were caught unprepared and have not done enough to negate and expose the relentless and sophisticated disinformation wars that are wracking American politics.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a member of the Intelligence Committee, decried the “attempts to divide Americans, change our way of life, and America as we know it.”

That may be one rare point of agreement. The stakes are that high.

In the midst of this Supreme Court and social media chaos dropped Woodward’s book, Fear, and its explosive excerpts portraying President Donald Trump as an unhinged, petulant and impulsive chief executive, surrounded by aides whose primary activities often are anticipating and heading off Trump-inspired calamities.

The pushback was fierce. Some quoted in the book, from some of the highest positions of Trump’s administration, denied saying what Woodward reports them saying.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who was quoted in the book comparing Trump to a fifth-grader who risked World War III, responded with a statement saying that the “contemptuous words about the president attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence.”

But in Woodward, Trump faces no everyday media target. The president himself vouched for Woodward’s fair treatment of him in the past in a tape released by Woodward’s employer, The Washington Post.

Woodward, whose reporting helped bring down President Richard Nixon, is notoriously thorough and meticulous. If it’s in the book, odds are it is on an audio recording in his possession from someone who agreed to talk without being directly named.

Ari Fleischer, press secretary to former President George W. Bush, tweeted: “I’ve been on the receiving end of a Bob Woodward book. There were quotes in it I didn’t like. But never once — never — did I think Woodward made it up.”

This week, more than most of the Trump era, foundations are shaking.

Kavanaugh is a conservative judge who could have been nominated to the high court by any recent Republican president. Barring a surprise, he is likely to be confirmed by a narrow margin.

But the questions that Democrats are raising go to the very core of his veracity and truthfulness, and his addition to the court is likely to leave a bitter aftertaste that could influence the Nov. 6 congressional elections and stretch into the 2020 presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, the foundations of social media are shifting, too. Some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee talked of imposing regulations, like requiring social media sites to alert users if they’ve been victims of disinformation or contacted by nonhuman “bots.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., asked Dorsey to describe “the biggest area where you are trying to rethink how you thought this was going to work out (vs.) the way it has turned out to be.” Dorsey responded that Twitter is re-examining the very concept of “followers” and other metrics to judge a poster’s legitimacy and authentic contribution.

In other words, the very things that were supposed to attract people to Twitter — immediacy, access, spirited discussion — also have encouraged and expanded the dangerous, outrageous, and fake.

“When we created this service 12 years ago we had this concept of followers,” Dorsey told Blunt. “And just that decision alone has incentivized people to want to grow that number ...

“And the question we are now asking (is), ‘Is that necessarily the right incentive? Is the number of followers you have really proxy for how much you contribute to Twitter and to this digital public square?’ And we don’t believe it is.”

Chuck Raasch is the chief Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.