Against ‘actually’ Twitter

A tale of three times I retweeted something, and reading rebuttals carefully.

Story one: On Thursday the Washington Post published a story:

I read the story, thought it was interesting (and relevant given other facts floating around) and retweeted it.

Later on, I started to see various versions of this tweet circulating, :

Similarly this at Vox:

and also this:

The general pattern being that this probably isn’t that out of the norm with what might be expected from another incoming president. Whoops! Better retweet one of these. Got it wrong, must set record straight.

But that said - Manyam’s article also explains why this story had traction, it fits a general pattern of a chaotic transition:

That said, and as my former Assistant Secretary tweeted out this week, some of these swift recalls may have come without much thought for context or ramifications. The acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security — a distinguished career Foreign Service Officer — was apparently on his way to an international conference in Rome when he was notified pretty much in midair that his resignation was accepted and he should turn around immediately and head back to the U.S. Not having representation, particularly under such sudden orders, by the United States — still a leader in every multilateral organization — sends a disturbing message of instability and lack of confidence to our interlocutors and those affected by our decisions.

She is also reassuring that there is a procedure here:

As soon as a President is elected, a transition team for each agency is in place making decisions about hiring and succession for available appointee positions and working with an “outgoing” transition team from the soon-to-be previous administration. President Trump is no different. There has been a transition team in place vetting candidates for at least three months.

But this goes against other things we know about Trump’s transition. A week after the election “[t]he State Department and Pentagon have said on the record they have had no contact with any member of the transition staff”. Presumably this public message had an effect as there are no further stories on it. The Office of Government Ethics similarly had November problems reaching the Transition Team. But maybe they sorted out all this out.

This brings me to story two:

This is a slightly different transition story, but the similar basic message. Officials submit their resignation (as they all do) but do not receive any contact about if they should be expected to stay on — which (although the agency has a young history) would have been a break from previous continuity.

Later that night I saw this story retweeted from DefenceNews:

And this is a very interesting contribution because while denying the implication of Gizmodo’s story, it absolutely confirmed its key point:

“The story is not accurate,” the official said. “There have been no discussions between the president-elect’s transition team and any of NNSA’s political appointees on extending their public service past Jan. 20.”

This is now in January, 10 days before Trump takes office and far after the transition’s reorganisation in November. This fits the pattern of a transition that was, at best, bad at communicating what was going on (and at worse, didn’t know what it was doing). In return, there were leaks about this internal panic to try and raise the alarm and get some clarity. Seeing the original story as “incorrect” is a limited interpretation because it’s part of a cry for help that avoided the events it describes:

On January 9, Gizmodo reported that Klotz and Creedon had been told to clean out their desks, something an NNSA official almost immediately denied to Defense News.
On January 17, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M, sent the incoming administration a letter warning of the danger of leaving the NNSA spot open, which raised attention to the issue.
But the biggest moment came two days later, when Rick Perry, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Energy, told lawmakers at his Senate confirmation hearing that he hoped to keep Klotz in place.
“I have sat down with the general [Klotz] and had a good conversation with him, and have sent the message that it would certainly be my desire to have that continuity,” Perry said. “It is in the president-elect’s office now and hopefully we will see that type of continuity in those very important places.”

Building on that, that numerous early executive orders seem to have lifted from a never-reviewed plan for the Romney transition suggests that it is reasonable to read Trump transition stories looking for the unusual, rather than assuming it is performing normally. There will be errors in doing this, but rebuttals need to be read very carefully. As the quote DefenceNews uses shows, they can be making subtle points that have to be distinguished from “ignore the original story”.

Story three is different.

In December there was a story about Fox News and Breitbart in “War on Christmas” stories blaming a set of parents for a religious motivated cancellation of a school play. The child was taunted by other children at school and, after reading comment threads on these sites, the family pulled their child out of school and, as the original story goes “fled” the area.

But the American Defamation League put out a press release saying that it was wrong to say the family had fled, they had actually just left on a planned holiday. In this piece about “The left’s emerging ‘fake news’ problem”, it was the first problem brought up:

The only problem? The story wasn’t true.
The Anti-Defamation League investigated it and, after speaking with the family, determined they had not fled town over fears of retribution. What they had done was go on a “previously planned vacation for the holidays.”
“News reports alleging that a Jewish family has ‘fled’ Lancaster County are untrue and damaging,” said Nancy Baron-Baer, a regional director for the ADL.
It was a garish instance of the left gleefully jumping on a thin news story that reinforced a political point, only to later learn its basic premise was incorrect.

Here is the problem - the basic premise of the story is absolutely correct:

The gist is that the local paper stood by its original story. But since they were unable to get in contact with the family again after the ADL press release, they shifted the emphasis of the piece from ‘fleeing’ the area to taking their child out of the school. Meanwhile, Mark Joseph Stern of Slate got in contact with the ADL and learned, as we suspected, that they had no reason to doubt anything about the harassment detailed in the story. Their entire issue was with the word “fled.” In my mind that still puts the ADL (in this case I believe a regional office of the ADL) in a very bad light, since the clear import of their press release was that the entire story was false.
This certainly does make the report of them ‘fleeing’ the region sound a bit dramatic. But again, let’s look at the uncontested facts. 1) National news reports falsely blamed the family for getting the Christmas play canceled 2) The family was harassed. 3) They felt threatened enough to take their child out of the school. 4) They left a day earlier than planned on their holiday vacation because they were spooked by the harassment. When you change your plans to leave town because of religiously tinged harassment, “fleeing” is not an unreasonable description. Overall, the dispute here seems largely semantic. Certainly, it’s easy to see how the local reporter’s initial discussion with the family could have led to their characterization.

So a story about how right-wing media made a family worried enough to leave town earlier (and mentioning ‘pizzagate’ explicitly as a reason to not take chances with people in the comments) has become not just fake news, but a key example of how left wing media consumers are bad.

What this shows is the importance of very carefully reading what are billed as rebuttal statements. As in story two, the rebuttal statement hardly contradicts any important element of the original story. But it is read as an ‘actually’ statement, sweeping aside the original story entirely.

I’ve added this bit a day after publishing the rest. Returning to story one, this Guardian article returns to the “there is something unprecedented about this change” argument:

All were long-serving career officials who had been promoted to high rank equivalent to political appointees. The acting state department spokesman, Mark Toner, pointed out that as political appointees they were routinely expected to submit their resignations.
Although that is true, it is also customary for such officials to stay in positions until their replacements are ready to step in, for the sake of continuity. In this case, there are no replacements on the horizon.
The transition team Trump has sent to the state department has shown little interest in policy issues. Departments covering large regions of the world say they have had no contact with his representatives.
When Daniel Baer, the former US ambassador to the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, was preparing to leave this month, he offered to visit Washington to brief the transition team. Such briefings are part of an outgoing ambassador’s duties — they are laid out in the state department’s foreign affairs manual — and there were sensitive issues to discuss, including the upcoming renewal of the team monitoring the Ukraine conflict. Baer was told his parting advice would not be required.

This to me fits with the other available facts about the behaviour of the transition. Is there still a debate to be had between informed people about how worrying this is? Probably! And I’m not one of them. I just worry about the pattern, I worry that “actually” stories pointing out similarities to previous administration miss these differences are significant and collectively tell a coherent story. It feels like a “frog slowly boiling” situation.

Fun fact: Frogs will jump out. They can’t talk each other into believing the water is fine.

I like to think I do due diligence in actually reading something before I retweet it - but when I then see something going ‘actually’, I’m a little embarrassed. I didn’t catch that, and now I’m part of the problem. Only fair to retweet that too and correct the record for anyone I passed on the original story too. This is retweeting as penance.

Thinking about these stories is making me think that embarrassed retweet isn’t enough. Our belief that things are fine is reinforced by even a semi-credible source seeming to say that. But in two of these cases [edit: I’m now leaning towards all three], the credible rebuttal wasn’t doing the work its role as an ‘actually’ tweet would suggest.

I will doubtless at some point share something dubious again, or a rebuttal that isn’t quite — but I’m trying to think about it more.

And sometimes blog, as penance.

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