Russia meddled. Media companies profitted. What will you do?

Russia meddled. Media companies profitted. What will you do? January 21, 2019

Readers, I typed this up back just before Christmas, but didn’t publish it.  Seems even more relevant now than before after this past weekend.

Have you heard about the speech therapist who was required, as a condition of her employment, to sign a “loyalty oath” pledging not to support any boycott of the state of Israel?  Feeling unjustly denied freedom of speech and subject to restrictions reminiscent of McCarthyism, she refused and is now suing the school district, as detailed at the Washington Post, in “She lost her school job after refusing to sign a pro-Israel pledge. Now, she’s filing a lawsuit.

Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist who has worked as a contractor in a Texas school district for nine years, received a new contract agreement to sign in September for the upcoming school year.

The agreement asked her to affirm that she did not boycott Israel and assert that she would not while working for the school.

Sounds outrageous, no? And, indeed, the Post commenters are predictably outraged:

These BDS laws are akin to Christian Sharia laws. Now you have to agree to a particular religious view point in order to work for a public school district? Give me a break! The wacko evangalist are waiting for end times so Palestines have to suffer and evangalists don’t even like the Jews just the jewish state so they can go to heaven.

Why are we letting a religious fairy tale dictate public policy??

says Sam Smith.

Poland 1918 says,

So what is the ultimate aim here ? To turn the US into a Fundamentalist “Judo-Christian” theocracy one step at a time.

and so on.

Turns out, the story is a bit more mundane than that.

The  Volokh Conspiracy, hosted at Reason.com, explains this as follows:

Texas has a law banning state entities from contracting with businesses, including sole proprietorships, that boycott Israel. As a result, just like local governments require contractors to certify that they adhere to many other state laws, such as anti-discrimination laws and financial propriety laws, they also must certify, in compliance with state law, that their business does not boycott Israel. . . .

Briefly on the First Amendment issue, it’s no different analytically than requiring a contractor to pledge that the business does not refuse to hire Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, veterans, or another state-designated group.

This means that Amawi can spend her personal time protesting Israel to her heart’s content.  She can avoid Israeli-made hummus, and can buy flavored sparkling water rather than a Soda Stream device, and whatever else she wishes.  But if, in addition to her services at the school district, she had a private speech therapy practice, and an Israeli government official who happened for whatever reason to be on assignment in her corner of Texas sought her out for speech therapy services (yes, I know, it’s far-fetched, but let’s imagine that if she’s accustomed to working with Arabic-speaking children perhaps Arabic and Hebrew are similar enough that she might seem well-suited to providing services for a Hebrew-speaking child), then, in her capacity as a speech therapy business sole proprietor, she would be in violation of the applicable state law if she refused to provide services based on this family’s national origin/employer.

Knowing that further explanation, does it seem a bit more reasonable, a bit less outrageous than the original report?

It’s not just the Russians who are meddling.

Over the past several days new reports have come out detailing the degree to which Russians used Facebook and other social media platforms to great effect, both to turn voters against Hillary Clinton and to sow discord among Americans more generally.  And, sure, that’s not good, but it’s appalling to me to know that we Americans were such easy marks.

And it’s not just the Russians.  In Ben Sasse’s new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How To Heal, he labels what’s going on at American news media, “the polarization business model.”  Clickbait, outrage-driven articles are not limited to fringe websites, but increasingly a part of the way even “respectable” publications seek to make money, rationalized, to be sure, by the tight profit margins of the modern news business.  Sasse describes a “digital content assessment tool called ‘Bandito'” at the Washington Post in which editors test multiple versions of a headline to see which of them gets the most clicks, which inevitably means that the more sensational headlines are deemed more effective and become the norm.

Will knowing this change Americans’ behavior?  Will they be less likely to give credence to “outrage”-oriented viral posts and even mainstream-publication articles that are tilted towards generating anger in order to get more clicks, if they are aware that the article-writer or content-promoter’s objective is to gin up outrage?  Will they consider questions such as “who is benefitting if I get angry?”

More to the point, readers, will this change your behavior?

Will you cultivate the response, “there might be more to the story that I don’t know” when you see a report that’s designed to get you angry at some villain or another?  Will you try to maintain an awareness that a solution you think is obvious might have unintended consequences and that causes and remedies to whatever problem you care about are complex? And even when you know you’re in the right on an issue that matters, will you remind yourself that those who hold different opinions are not your enemies?

Yes, we can direct our Two Minutes Hate to the Russians, or to Facebook for having enabled Russian meddling, or to Congress for having failed to ban it.  But when it’s the Two Minutes Hate itself that’s so destructive, it doesn’t really fix anything to hunt around for different, or additional targets for that Hate.

 

Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brownsville_Herald_Newspaper.jpg; By Dontbesogullible (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.  Nothing very clever here; this is just meant to be a generic representation of “news” because I used my generic representation of anger and fighting in my last post.

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