Neoliberals Glamping in Death Valley
A plan to spread paranoia using celebrities, influencers and sockpuppets
TO BE A TOURIST is to escape accountability...Tourism is the march of stupidity...You are an army of fools...There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.” ― Don DeLillo, The Names
It’s not your imagination that since 2016 or so social media suddenly became flooded with various demi-celebrities swanning about to share their surprisingly uniform thoughts: ‘Trump is bad;’ ‘Democrats will save us;’ ‘Medicare For All is racist.’ Those who offered counter-examples were enthusiastically piled-on by armies of low-follower accounts before the screen actor flounced off to their next commercial or Hallmark movie. We’ve all endured the exhausting pontifications, provocations (and should you disagree, hard blocks) of the likes of Alyssa Milano, Rob Reiner, Patty Arquette, Debra Messing, and Sarah Silverman.
Where did all this come from?
Some of course is just natural. Celebrities are (for the most part) people, and like the rest of us, their unscripted thoughts and reactions can be ill-considered or obnoxious. And many were simply aghast that America chose Donald Trump (and rejected Hillary Clinton) in 2016. Still, whole flocks of them seem to be saying the same things, the same way, over and over. And curiously, most seem as mad at progressives and leftists as they were at the Bad Orange Man.
Manufacturing Consent in Death Valley
Celebrities are perfect propaganda machines. The amorphous sense of glamour and privilege they bring with them takes the focus off policy and puts it on style. Our suffering bores them because it’s foreign. Their interests and values align with the .01% with whom they share zip codes. Celebrities aren’t just value-neutral rubberneckers. They actually rob us of our own narratives. Once celebrities are deployed on the political playing field, the world sees things through their cloistered, fashionable eyes, not our own.
Democratic Party operatives have worked for years to recruit and train celebrity propagandists. Nomiki Konst ran an organization (which may or may not have been a non-profit) called “Alliance Hollywood” which nominally trained celebrities in the art of political advocacy public speaking. An “Alliance Hollywood” Flickr page features Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos running an event affiliated with the organization.
Coincidentally, in 2017 I attended a Daily Kos conference in Death Valley where a plan was presented for how Democrats would use celebrities with large social media accounts as a substitute for a media strategy. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
GLAMPING FOR DEMOCRACY
You might ask, ‘why host a conference in arid, remote Death Valley?’ The answer, as with every question for Democrats in 2017, was “Russia, Russia, Russia!”
The eccentric location, the organizers told us, was to get as far away as possible from the prying electronic eyes and ears of the devious Russian Bear and its evil plans. Seriously. But that was just the first hint of the feckless lunacy to come.
Having caught a cheap non-stop flight from Orlando to Vegas and rented a car for the drive into the desert, I hastily gathered a few provisions at the local Target, passed the bright lights of the Vegas strip, and drove into the gloaming desert beyond, reaching the remote lodge and campground just after dark.
Making the final turn, I caught a glimpse of a coyote, yellow eyes glittering, crouching furtively behind a rock. Coyotes loom large in the mythology of the desert, reminding us to pay attention to “the moral of the story.”
I wondered what the moral to this story would become.
The desert location may have been remote, but it wasn’t empty. Dozens of well-heeled party operatives rolled into the campgrounds in expensive rented campers. Others car-camped or slept in tents. I chose to rent a room at the motor lodge as did many others who, like me, would rather not sleep on the cold ground if I can avoid it.
A large, extremely well-equipped panel truck would serve as “home base” for the weekend’s activities. It proved to be full of an impressive array of shiny new equipment and a never-ending supply of food and drink. Someone had clearly paid a mighty shitload of money for this event.
Attendees were mostly Daily Kos insiders and Democratic Party operatives from around the country. The event leader, whom I’d actually met earlier on my Target run, was an affable guy who easily slipped into conversation with everyone. He didn’t have that abrasive glibness I associate with political operatives. He was there with his mother and younger brother who works in aerospace in California. That night gathered around the fire, I’d meet a lot of aerospace (read: defense industry) professionals, including a candidate for a California congressional seat. People were drinking and having a good time.
Russia Russia Russia
Early the next morning we met for our first “session.” The leader opened with a recital of the philosophical foundation of the event: Russia stole the election for Donald Trump through the manipulations of social media. I couldn’t tell yet if people were buying this bullshit. The party needed this fiction to make their machine go, and even though I personally thought the Russiagate Conspiracy was complete bullshit I had no desire to change anyone’s mind on the subject. There’s no reasoning with dogma.
Someone commented soberly that “The more you know the less you can sleep’ [bingo, they’re buying the bullshit]. After intoning the dogma of the Russiagate conspiracy, they spent a moment sharing boilerplate contempt for the nutty conspiratorial thinking of the opposition which had not fully blossomed into what would be known Q.
As if to punctuate the cognitive dissonance, it rained all morning in Death Valley.
The paranoia was ramped up when the event leader declared all the electronics we carry—from iPhones to Fitbits—are actually surveillance devices that Russians use to spy on us. There was no way to be safe, but we might consider keeping our devices in a shielded “Faraday bag,” lined with electron-proof materials.
We were told repeatedly to leave all electronics in our rooms, campers or tents while meeting together. Because they’d be sharing highly sensitive information, especially the planning sessions.
Having established that hordes of Russian operatives were lurking in our smartwatches and cell phones, the next point in the curated conversation was to establish the idea that we are immersed in disinformation or “fake news.” Except of course for Rachel Maddow, whose “superior Russia coverage,” was obviously on-target. Attendees likewise gushed over the “Steele Dossier,” the sensationalized oppo piece commissioned by anti-Trump Republicans and then adopted by Democrats. Used to mislead the FISA Court into authorizing spying on Carter Page, the document has since been debunked as little more than a drunken game of “what if” between a couple of aging British spies.
We also heard about how to identify human “Russian-intelligence Controlled Assets.” Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and former foreign policy advisor Carter Page all fit the profile. All were likely under the control Russian banks and the all-powerful Vladimir Putin.
Celebrities and sockpuppets
After the morning’s lesson in paranoia, it was time for breakout sessions. One group was working on a letter to the DNC. I went to the “media” session, which oddly only attracted four people including myself. You’d think that people involved with an online publication like DailyKos would be more enthusiastic about media.
The participant who took the lead had leveraged her blogging success into an invitation to the White House to meet Obama, and before she knew it she had a political consultancy.
Given that Daily Kos and Netroots Nation were famous for launching a thousand blogs into the mainstream, I assumed the strategy would involve boosting their indie media partners.
Instead, the blogger in charge let us know that the “media plan” had already been decided and implemented. She said that instead of bothering with small media ventures they were seeking funders to train hot young celebrities and social media influencers. It was all beginning to feel more like a business pitch than a workshop.
“The funders,” we were informed, had no interest investing in independent media, because corporate media was already serving their aims. Instead, the focus was to be on recruiting celebrities and influencers and “re-training” them in the new information ecosystem before sending them out to the various social media platform. This approach, we were told, was already in full swing.
This new media landscape transcended the usual concerns of media and “Facebook is all the infrastructure we need now.”
Our blogger-turned-consultant described a “virtuous triangle,” whereby a celebrity launders messaging from “influencers” to their following, who then amplify the message in a viral manner. To extend their reach, their funders were investing in “software that mimics personas” which would create the illusion of vast herds of Democrats all singing the same tune.
To be honest, at the time I felt she was full of shit, and dismissed the software comment as part of her entrepreneurial schtick. I’ve heard all kinds of bizarre evidence-free claims from operatives. Everyone wants you to sell you their brand of Special Sauce. But we’ve known since at least 2011 that the military uses “sockpuppet armies,” or groups of invented online personas, to create “a false consensus in online conversations, crowding out unwelcome opinions and smothering commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.” In the context of the military, it’s called psychological warfare. In the context of Democratic machine politics it’s come to be known as #Khive.
We have disclosure laws for political speech for a reason. While the atrocious Citizens United decision can make it hard to tell who is funding what, political groups still must disclose that they are engaged in political messaging. Check those glossy, hysterical postcards that flood your mailbox in an election year, and each will say “paid for by” and include the correct name of the entity which can be referenced at the FEC.
Yet the very people hopping up and down in front of me about the nefarious influence of Russian Facebook ads were clearly very excited to explain that the future of Democratic messaging is to disguise paid political messaging as the organic thoughts of ordinary people via “software that mimics personas.”
This is all happening right now. When you log on to Twitter, you’re bumping up against funder-supported armies of sockpuppets, pushing whatever it is the mysterious “funders” believe we need to believe. It’s still psychological warfare. And there is money to be made doing it.
If you’re in a chat group with a political influencer pressuring you to post this or that, you should wonder who’s paying them. If you’re a political influencer participating in this, you should ask who put the money in the PAC that cuts your checks. Defense contractors, pharmaceutical companies, insurance providers, polluters, human rights abusers? The all-important “funders” were never mentioned by name. Chances are that a lot of political operatives have no idea where their money originates from. A check is written on the account of a trusted campaign/union/PAC is transferring money that came from somewhere—generally a special interest that expects their policy demands to be met.
We deserve to know whose interests are being represented by those thousands of seemingly organic comments and “likes” on social media. We had hoped social media would be an avenue for a more democratic worldwide discourse. Instead has become just one big, paid psyop.
After each breakout session, participants returned to the main group to “report back” on their discussions. Our media group’s blogger-in-chief regurgitated the chilling strategy she had laid out to us: Feed celebrities political messaging on social media; use “influencers” and software to “mimic personas” to amplify the message. The “Virtuous Triangle.”
When she was finished, I asked if I could have a moment to follow-on. I was curious if anyone else saw inherent risks or contradictions in the social media strategy. Why not include media in this vision? That would play to the strength of the Daily Kos brand. and employ a more meat-and-potatoes media strategy in addition to this sketchy, psy-op-inspired social media-by-deception plan?
Someone said that “We can’t trust media anymore because of ‘fake news.’” I said okay, but as Daily Kos you’re “the news.” Do you not trust yourself? Why limit a media strategy to social media?
After a few moments of pregnant silence, someone offered that the real problem was that we needed to “cleanse the news” of disinformation through a process of “informational hygiene.” While the speaker was clearly suggesting a program of censorship, what the term “informational hygiene” actually means is “having regular engagement with news, and differing points of view; verifying information and not amplifying misinformation.” This stands in stark contrast to a strategy of creating sockpuppet armies using software-generated bots to fabricate a false consensus, while hiding a pay-for-play scheme to gain political influence.
It was becoming clear the disturbing underlying philosophy was that real people are unreliable in that they tend to have opinions and critiques, whereas “software that mimics personas” doesn’t come with any such problematic strings attached. The utter ruthlessness and hypocrisy stunned me.
The irony that the very same people who only that morning were up in arms about Russia manufacturing consent via social media were enthusiastically proselytizing for the very same strategy was apparently lost on the group.
These people were high on their own supply. It was time for lunch and I was ready for a break.
“Keep your electronics in your room”
We had about 20 minutes until the next session. The food truck had some kind of warmed-up Costco offering that looked and smelled sketchy. I had some greens from my Target run stashed in the motel room, so I threw together a salad to eat during the next session.
Walking up to the motor lodge I noticed what seemed to be a couple of conference attendees entering a room with housekeeping. Someone probably lost their keycard. But a few minutes later, on my way out, I noticed the same group again following housekeeping into the next room closer to mine. I stood for a moment thinking about all the hair-on-fire security instructions to leave our electronics behind in our rooms. Do I want housekeeping and the two tag-alongs to have access to my electronics?
Without drawing any firm conclusions, I moved my laptop and electronics to the car and locked the doors. I planned to take off as soon as the next session lets out to do some photography, so why not just have everything ready to go?
Super double-secret operations sesh
At the lunchtime planning session, we were informed that the information we were about to exchange was so sensitive we needed to move even farther out into the desert to discuss it. Apparently another 300 feet out into the scrub would shield us from the prying eyes and ears of the Kremlin.
It felt like a game of “Let’s Pretend We’re Super Important People Doing Super Important Stuff.” Trying not to roll my eyes, I grabbed my chair and followed the herd into the brush and dunes.
It’s impossible to overstate the build-up to this moment. People had traveled across the country to participate in the project of re-taking democracy. No phones, cameras, laptops, or even Fitbits were allowed, because Russia was definitely surveilling us, and the information we’d share in mere moments was so incredibly sensitive that extra steps were taken to mitigate the risk of being overheard.
We arranged our chairs into a large circle. Some people seemed tense. Others just looked tired, disinterested, and hungover. I was admiring the sunlight cutting jagged shadows into the Grapevine mountain range and wondering how soon this would be over so I could run and take photographs. Also, I wanted to eat my salad.
I was just getting situated to eat when the aerospace-connected brother of the event’s leader approached with a sour facial expression. He pointed to my bag, and accused me of “hiding my phone” in there.
His weird hostility put me off. If my phone was in my bag it wouldn’t be hidden, it would be where it normally belongs, but I’d locked it in the car when I saw the curious group following housekeeping from room to room at the motel. Opting to be nice, I just said “No.”
I had just moved my electronics from the room to the car less than 10 minutes before, and if those people were indeed going from room to room, they would be at mine right about now. If someone were, say, covertly trying to verify the location of my electronics, they would have found none. And here was Mr. Defense Contractor, face contorted in self-important rage, oddly convinced my phone was “hidden” somewhere.
Looking back, the “secure location” we were ordered to was just far enough from the camp where most people were staying to put it out of view. The motel was further still. It seems not beyond the realm of possibility that our hyper-security-conscious organizers pulled their own ham-handed “op” on us.
Finally, out in the scrub, these Daily Kos insiders were going to reveal the Top Secret Plan. To take back our democracy. This is what everyone had been waiting for. Information so precious we all needed to travel to DEATH VALLEY to evade electronic surveillance.
TAKING BACK DEMOCRACY: action item #1
First up was a Black activist from Georgia, who described how her sorority was part of an effort to get the cable channel VH1 to cancel a show they said “cast a bad light” on the Greek system in universities. This important issue was apparently tackled with a fresh, insightful strategy involving … websites and Facebook groups. Also, celebrities.
One might wonder if “software that mimics personas” wasn’t also part of the Sorority Sisters saga. Had their messages been artificially boosted by software that mimics personas? Who knows? Who fucking cares?
Someone—not me—actually said “We’re in the desert talking about television boycotts?” It was clear that the only reason to worry about surreptitious recording of the session was because the whole thing was mortifying; horribly embarrassing.
TAKING BACK DEMOCRACY: action item #2
The first case study was a dud. How about the second one? This one has to be better. It can’t be worse.
Here’s the pitch: get dirt on Republicans,specifically sexual misconduct information.
While this approach is a significant improvement over “Let’s boycott TV shows,” it hardly merits a “top secret” designation. Everyone does opposition research. You don’t need a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility or an empty desert to do so. Hell, most people put their oppo on Google Docs.
The session broke up and everyone hiked back to the camping area. The build-up had been as intense as Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault, and the plan was fittingly as empty as the cellar featured on that 2-hour television special.
With a few hours before the sundown, I was ready to explore and take some pictures. The dunes were full of tourists, and the wildflowers hadn’t bloomed yet. I decided drive as far away from people as possible. Found my spot and watched the light to do its thing while laughing to myself at the inanity of everything I’d just witnessed.
When I got back it was just getting dark and people had obviously started drinking directly after the planning session. I grabbed a hot dog and sat at a picnic table. As with so many second nights at a conference, people got wasted. Things just got stupider from there.
Someone brought out an American Flag and loudly and badly belted out the first couple of lines of The Star Spangled Banner. Others joined, each for some strange reason trying to touch the flag. It was icky and pretentious. I couldn’t wait to leave.
I think my friend the coyote would agree that if there were a lesson to be learned here, it would be in this moment—at this twilight’s last gleaming Democrats were moving far, FAR to the right of their base. They’d swing from the rafters singing how they’re more patriotic than anyone. They’d hop up and down, wave their flags, as their persona-mimicking social media accounts reinforced each day’s talking points. This was the grand plan for Democratic messaging for the foreseeable future.
Coyote’s moral to the story
For Democratic operatives only interested in political tourism, real engagement wasn’t just frowned upon, it’s shut down. They’d deploy their version “informational hygiene” to cleanse the discourse of any evidence of dissent. They had their new software that would “mimic personas” on social media, and they had already trained celebrity brand ambassadors through organizations such as Konst’s “Alliance Hollywood.”
Fed up with the paranoia theater I hopped in the rental car and drove out to do some night photography. There was no moon, and the Milky Way lit up the sky. It felt good to pivot from the pitiful narrowness of the day’s programming, to gazing at infinity.
It was easy to see that electronic security was not the reason we were out in Death Valley. We were in the desert to LARP a paranoid fantasy of Russian skullduggery. Borrowing from improvisational theater, if everyone acts as if they believe a premise, the premise becomes more believable and people then have the experience of the premise being real, which makes acting on that premise seem natural. In this game the point was the paranoia. They wanted everyone to go home and spread the Russian Jitters.
People attending this event were not there as political organizers or even human actors with agency. We were all to be tourists, provided a dose of frantic paranoia and then soothed with a simulacrum of having done political work.
Be afraid and boycott a TV show for Democracy—the “software that mimics personas” has already taken over.
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