Closing In on the Last Sacred Thing

According to Gallup the U.S. military enjoys the highest public confidence among American institutions.  The controversy arising from President Trump's handling of casualties returned from Africa may change that.  Coming on the heels of the discredit of other institutions, the impending dust-up depressingly recalls Ian Fleming's adage: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action”. But New Yorker's Masha Gessen's response to John Kelly's defense of President Trump is blithe and illustrates the tone the debate may take.

Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like ...

Not only was he claiming that the President, communicating with a citizen in his official capacity, had a right to confidentiality—he was claiming that this right was “sacred.” Indeed, Kelly seemed to say, it was the last sacred thing in this country. He rattled off a litany of things that had lost their sanctity: women, life, religion, Gold Star families.

It will be as poisonous as everything else.  Discourse is now no-holds-barred. Some of this toxic atmosphere is allegedly the work of Vladimir Putin, whose trolls impersonated activists on both sides to stir up trouble. The left-wing Mother Jones describes troll factories that "spent about $2.3 million during the 2016 election cycle to meddle in US politics, paying the salaries of 90 'US desk' employees who helped wage disinformation campaigns via social media that reached millions of Americans. The operation also contacted US activists directly and offered them thousands of dollars to organize protests on divisive issues, including race relations."

Such piddling amounts would have been rounding errors without the giant amplifier created by Silicon Valley itself. The Kremlin was astonished by what could be achieved with their meager budgets. "In spring 2015 [they] held an experiment to see if they could successfully organize a live event in the US from behind their computer screens in St. Petersburg. They did this by targeting New Yorkers on Facebook and attempting to lure them to a specific event where they would receive a free hot dog. There were no actual hot dogs, but enough people showed up at the specified location to make the agency deem the experiment a success."

Fake hotdogs, deluded activists, big results. It was as if the impecunious Russians had found the secret thermal port that led to the reactor spaces of the media Death Star and sent a bomb down it. The mesh topology of social media connections allowed ideas to propagate very quickly.  Business Insider illustrated how trending ideas spread using tools like Google Ripple.  These moved with the speed of a runaway pandemic.  They'll move even faster in the future.  Silicon Valley is in the midst of building an even bigger monster machine.  Steve Kovach describes Google's project to create a herd of Trojan Horses to get inside every aspect of your life. "Google’s hardware division will be used to sneak the company’s AI technology into everything" you touch.