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Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem

[From the on-line aggregation site Medium, originally a post from the Design, Use. Build Lab, by Kate Starboard, Asst. Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at UW. Researcher of crisis informatics and online rumors.

The best exposition I’ve seen about how the Alternative Media operates. If you spend time reading current events on the Internet, read this to understand how bad news is twisted into false news, mostly by right-wing political agents.  bp]

Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem

Conspiracy Theories, Muddled Thinking, and Political Disinformation

Background: Examining “Alternative Narratives” of Crisis Events

For more than three years, my lab at the University of Washington has conducted research looking at how people spread rumors online during crisis events. We have looked at natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes as well as man-made events such as mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Due to the public availability of data, we focused primarily on Twitter — but we also used data collected there (tweets) to expose broader activity in the surrounding media ecosystem.

Over time, we noted that a similar kind of rumor kept showing up, over and over again, after each of the man-made crisis events — a conspiracy theory or “alternative narrative” of the event that claimed it either didn’t happen or that it was perpetrated by someone other than the current suspects.

We first encountered this type of rumor while studying the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. We noticed a large number of tweets (>4000) claiming that the bombings were a “false flag” perpetrated by U.S. Navy Seals. The initial spread of this rumor involved a “cascade” of tweets linking to an article on the InfoWars website. At the time, our researchers did not know what InfoWars was, but the significance of that connection became clear over time.

In subsequent crisis events, similar rumors appeared. After the Umpqua Community College shooting, a rumor claimed the event was staged by “crisis actors” for political reasons — specifically to justify legal restrictions on gun rights. And after the shootings at the Orlando Pulse nightclub, a rumor suggested they were committed by someone other than the accused gunman — with the purpose of falsely blaming the attack on Muslims. For every man-made crisis event we studied, we found evidence of alternative narratives, often shared by some of the same accounts and connected to some of the same online sites.

These rumors had different “signatures” from other types of rumors. In terms of volume (measured in tweets per minute), most crisis-related rumors spike quickly and then fade out relatively quickly as well, typically “decaying” at an exponential rate. But these alternative narrative rumors rose more slowly, and then they lingered, ebbing and flowing over the course of days or weeks (or years). They also had sustained participation by a set group of Twitter users (i.e. many tweets per user over an extended period of time), rather than finite participation by a large number of users (one or two tweets per user, all at around the same time) as typical rumors do. Additionally, alternative narrative rumors often had high “domain diversity”, in that tweets referencing the rumors linked to a large number of distinct domains (different websites), including alternative media sites such as InfoWars, BeforeItsNews, and RT (aka Russia Times). Several of these rumors also had a strong “botnet” presence — in other words, many participating Twitter accounts were not “real” people, but were operated by a computer program that controlled a large number of accounts.

In our very first study (about the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings) we noted that alternative narrative rumors intersected with politicized content. Analysis of co-occurring hashtags showed that #falseflag often appeared in the same tweets as #obama, #nra, #teaparty, #tcot, #tlot, #p2. As a researcher of crisis informatics, I’ve often noted how crises become politicized in online spaces (and elsewhere), but this was different, as the false flag rumor appeared to be deeply connected to political themes and propagated for a distinctly political purpose.

Strange Commonalities and Connections: Why We Shifted Focus
Initially, we chose not to dwell on these types of rumors, thinking that they had little impact on our core research questions — how people respond to crisis events and how we could make the information space more useful for crisis-affected people by detecting false rumors. These alternative narrative rumors rarely resonated within crisis-affected populations. And so, though we often remarked upon them when they surfaced in our data, we maintained our research focus elsewhere.

However, in early 2016, in the wake of the Umpqua Community College shootings and the coordinated terror attacks in Paris, a few of my students decided to take a closer look at what they perceived to be commonalities in the alternative narratives spreading on Twitter about the two different events — as well as what they thought to be a botnet driving a large portion of that content.

[Both of these hunches turned out to be true. The botnet was connected to “the Real Strategy” or TheRealStrategy.com. They coordinated hundreds of accounts that tweeted content related to several different alternative narratives from these events and others. Though some of those accounts have been deleted, others are still operational, new ones have been created, and they continue to publish and tweet out content related to numerous conspiracy theories.]

Using Twitter data collected during these events, the students built network graphs that revealed connections between different Twitter accounts — and between different “communities” of accounts — participating in these alternative narratives. When we went to examine the data in Winter 2016, we were extremely confused by some of the intersections. Why were a handful of “Anonymous” accounts and GamerGaters connected with Pro-Palestinian accounts on one side and European white nationalists on another? Why were seemingly left-wing supporters of Wikileaks connecting with seemingly right-wing supporters of Donald Trump? And why did these groups come together to talk about alternative narratives of mass shooting events? It didn’t make sense. Yet.

A Systematic Exploration of the Alternative Media Ecosystem through the Lens of Alternative Narratives of Mass Shooting Events
Almost a year later, motivated by the political disruptions of 2016, the rhetoric around “fake news” and alternative media, and this nagging feeling that there was something in our online rumoring data that could provide insight into these issues, we completed a systematic study of alternative narratives of mass shooting events, looking specifically at the alternative media ecosystem that generates them and supports their spread. A first paper resulting from this work was recently reviewed and accepted to the ICWSM 2017 conference. I have uploaded a pre-print version of this paper to my website.

In the remainder of this blog, I am going to describe some of that research, including the methods and the main findings. These findings touch on the nature of alternative media, including the presence of (and connections between) conspiracy theories, political propaganda, and disinformation.

Methods of Data Collection and Analysis

On January 1, 2016, our lab launched a Twitter collection focused specifically on shooting events. We kept this collection going for more than nine months, until October 6, tracking on (English) terms including shooting, shootings, gunman, and gunmen. From this collection, we then identified tweets that referenced alternative narratives — i.e. tweets that also contained terms such as “false flag”, “hoax”, and “crisis actor”.

Next, we created a network map of the Internet domains referenced in these tweets. In other words, we wanted to see what websites people cited as they talked about and constructed these alternative narratives, as well as how those different websites were connected. To do that, we generated a graph where nodes were Internet domains (extracted from URL links in the tweets). In this graph, nodes are sized by the overall number of tweets that linked to that domain and an edge exists between two nodes if the same Twitter account posted one tweet citing one domain and another tweet citing the other. After some trimming (removing domains such as social media sites and URL shorteners that are connected to everything), we ended up with the graph you see in Figure 1. We then used the graph to explore the media ecosystem through which the production of alternative narratives takes place.

Figure 1. Domain Network Graph, Colored by Media Type
Purple = mainstream media; Aqua = alternative media;
Red = government controlled media

After generating the graph, we conducted an in-depth qualitative analysis of all of the domains in the graph — reading their home and About pages, identifying prominent themes in their current website, searching for specific themes within their historical content, examining other available information (online) about their owners and writers, etc. Below, I discuss what we learned about this alternative media ecosystem through this analysis.

Alternative Media Were Cited for Supporting Alternative Narratives; Mainstream Media Were Cited for Challenging Them

The network graph represents a subsection of the larger media ecosystem — it is a snapshot of the “structure” of the conversation around alternative narratives. After trimming to domains cited multiple times (and by multiple people), the graph contains 117 total domains. We determined 80 of these to belong to “alternative media” (Figure 1, colored Aqua) and 27 to belong to mainstream media (Figure 1, colored Purple). Other domains include three belonging to NGOs and two belonging to media outlets funded by the Russian government (RT.com and SputnikNews.com).

It’s important to note that not all of these domains contained content promoting alternative narratives of shooting events. In the Twitter conversations about these alternative narratives, domains were cited in different ways for different kinds of content.

More than half of the domains in the graph (and more than 80% of the alternative media domains) were cited for content explicitly supporting the alternative narratives. However, others (especially mainstream media) were cited for factual accounts of the events, and then used as evidence by conspiracy theorists as they built these theories. And a few were referenced for their denials of these theories. Below are examples of each, to give you a sense of how tweets referenced external domains.

Supporting: The tweet below links to an article in the WorldTruth.tv domain which claims that witness accounts of multiple gunmen (which conflict with the official account) suggest that the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting is some sort of false flag. Contradictory and dynamic information — typical of the fog-of-war type situations that occur after crisis events — is often used as “evidence” to support alternative narratives of these events.

As Evidence: The tweet below claims that one of the witnesses to the Orlando shooting is an actor and that the shootings were a false flag. This echoes a common theme, which appears across many alternative narratives in our research, that “crisis actors” are used to stage events. The tweet links to an article in the Toronto Star domain which contains a neutral, factual account of the event.

Denying: This tweet links to the New York Times domain — to an article that refutes several different alternative narratives of the Orlando shootings. However, instead of aligning with the arguments in that article, this tweet is accusing the New York Times of being a participant in the conspiracy/hoax/false flag.

[Following Twitter’s rules, I am only providing examples here of tweets that are still publicly available on Twitter. I have also attempted to choose accounts for these examples that seem to intentionally propagate alternative narratives — in other words, I am attempting to avoid calling out individuals/accounts that might be uncomfortable being associated with these ideas.]

Most of the domains cited in the production of alternative narratives were “alternative media” domains, and most of these (68 of 80) were cited (linked-to) in the tweets we collected for content that explicitly supported alternative narratives. As you can see in the graph (Figure 1), the alternative media ecosystem is tightly connected — i.e. the Twitter users who produce alternative narratives often cite several different alternative media domains in their conspiracy theory tweets. The three main hubs in this particular network are VeteransToday.com, BeforeItsNews.com, and NoDisinfo.com, but there are many other alternative media domains that play a significant role in the production of alternative narratives. This alternative media ecosystem (a subset of the larger graph) is the focus of the remainder of this blog.

However, I want to explicitly note and clarify one aspect of the graph: though mainstream media domains like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Fox News appear in the graph, no mainstream media account in this graph hosted any content promoting the alternative narratives we were studying. Instead, they were typically cited in our Twitter data for general content about the event that was later used as “evidence” of a conspiracy. Mainstream media were also cited for corrections of the alternative narratives (sometimes in tweets supporting those corrections, sometimes in tweets contesting them). In the case of the New York Times, the newspaper posted an article explicitly denying alternative narratives of the Orlando shooting event. This denial was then cited several times by those promoting those narratives — as even more evidence for their theory. [This demonstrates a vexing aspect of rumor-correcting in this context — that corrections often backfire.]

The network graph does reveal some mainstream media sites to be more integrated into the alternative media ecosystem. For example, several people who tweet links to VeteransToday.com also tweet links to FoxNews.com, pulling it closer into that part of the graph.

The Role of Botnets in Amplifying Alternative Narratives

These data also provide insight into the effect of automated accounts (botnets) on the data. For example, the most tweeted domain in our data was TheRealStrategy.com. It was tweeted so many times (7436) and connected to so many domains (relative to all other domains) that we had to remove it from the graph. [It was the only highly cited, highly connected media domain we removed.] Examining the temporal patterns (tweets over time) suggests that almost all of the tweets that linked-to this domain were generated by a computer program. That program operated hundreds of different accounts, directing them to tweet out in regular bursts (dozens at the same time). Most often, these tweets linked to TheRealStrategy, but the program also sprinkled in tweets linking to other alternative media domains. Closer analysis revealed many of these Twitter accounts to have similar profile descriptions and to use photos stolen from other people online. This is a very sophisticated botnet that seems to be effectively bringing “real” accounts into its friend/following networks — and primarily propagating conspiracy theories and politicized content.

The InfoWars site was the second-most highly tweeted in our data set (1742 times). Almost all of the tweet activity citing InfoWars came from a coordinated set of accounts — all were similarly named and each sent a single tweet linking to one of two InfoWars articles about different alternative narratives of different shooting events. All of these accounts are now suspended. Though not as sophisticated as TheRealStrategy, this botnet did amplify the content of InfoWars, which was occasionally picked up and retweeted by others.

Political Propaganda: Nationalism vs. Globalism

One of the first things that struck us as we conducted qualitative content analysis on the alternative media domains was the amount of political content on the websites. We attempted to characterize this content, going through several rounds of iteration to try to recognize patterns across the sites and distinguish between different political orientations.

It quickly became clear that the U.S. left (liberal) vs. right (conservative) political spectrum was not appropriate for much of this content. Instead, the major political orientation was towards anti-globalism. Almost always, this orientation was made explicit in the content.

The meaning of globalism varied across the sites. For some websites focused on a U.S. audience, globalism implied a pro-immigrant stance. For more internationally-focused sites, globalism was used to characterize (and criticize) the influence of the U.S. government in other parts of the world. In some of the more conspiracy-focused sites, the term was used to suggest connections to a global conspiracy by rich, powerful people who manipulated the world for their benefit. Globalism was also tied to corporatism — in other words, the ways in which large, multi-national companies exert power over the world. And the term was also connected, implicitly and explicitly, to mainstream media.

In this way, to be anti-globalist could include being anti-mainstream media, anti-immigration, anti-corporation, anti-U.S. government, and anti-European Union. Due to the range of different meanings employed, the sentiment of anti-globalism pulled together individuals (and ideologies) from both the right and the left of the U.S. political spectrum. Disturbingly, much of the anti-globalist content in these alternative media domains was also anti-Semitic — echoing long-lived conspiracy theories about powerful Jewish people controlling world events.

So Many Conspiracy Theories: Crippled Epistemologies, Muddled Thinking, and the Fingerprints of a Disinformation Campaign

Another thing we noticed was both a proliferation and a convergence of different conspiratorial themes. Every domain that hosted an article promoting an alternative narrative of a shooting event also contained content referencing other conspiracy theories — sometimes hundreds of them. They were not all political in nature. We also encountered pseudo-science theories about vaccines, GMOs, and “chemtrails”. Some domains were all about conspiracy theories, but others featured seemingly normal news with conspiracy theories sprinkled in. Through qualitative analysis, we determined 24 alternative media domains to be primarily focused on distributing conspiracy theories and 44 to be primarily focused on communicating a political agenda.

Though there were many different theories spreading through this information ecosystem, we also saw a convergence of themes — some of the same stories appeared on several different domains. Occasionally, the stories seemed largely independent (i.e. different perspectives, different evidence), but often they were essentially copied from one site to another, or a downstream story simply synthesized an article on another site, including lengthy excerpts from the original. Additionally, a few authors seemed to contribute stories to multiple domains in the network.

So, a person seeking information within this ecosystem might encounter an article from one website that synthesized an article from a second website that was originally posted on and copied from a third website. One effect of this is that people seeking information within this space may think they are getting information from many different sources when in fact they are getting information from the same or very similar sources, laundered through many different websites. Sunstein & Vermeule (2009) argue that conspiratorial thinking is related to a “crippled epistemology” and that a significant component of this is a limited and/or slanted information diet (for example, one shaped by a social group). Our research suggests the information dynamics of this alternative media ecosystem, how the same information exists in different forms in different places, may create a false perception of information diversity or triangulation — further complicating this issue of crippled epistemologies.

From another perspective, these properties of the alternative news ecosystem — the proliferation of many and even conflicting conspiracy theories and the deceptive appearance of source diversity — may reflect the intentional use of disinformation tactics. Though we often think of disinformation as being employed to convince us of a specific ideology, in a 2014 article titled “The Menace of Unreality”, Pomerantsev and Weiss describe how Russian disinformation strategies (which they trace back to Lenin) are designed not to convince but to confuse, to create “muddled thinking” within in society. Their strategic argument is that a society who learns it cannot trust information can be easily controlled. It is possible that the current media ecosystem — including the alternative media domains and the social media platforms that help spread links to these domains — is contributing to muddled thinking (a relative or effect perhaps of an crippled epistemology). It is not yet clear if these effects are related to purposeful disinformation campaigns or are just emergent effects of our current information space. It seems researchers have some work to do to both clarify what is happening here and to perhaps think about designing systems that are more resilient to disinformation.

Alternative Media Co-opt Critical Thinking, Facts, and Truth

Perhaps the most vexing finding that emerged from this analysis — especially as we attempt to think of how to help people become better consumers of online information — was what we perceived to be an intentional strategy by many alternative media websites to leverage rhetoric around fake news and critical thinking to further confuse and mislead readers.

Our research shows that rejection of mainstream news is a common theme across alternative media domains. Perhaps it’s a truism to say that alternative media exist in juxtaposition to mainstream media, but what is interesting here is that many alternative media sites have explicitly set themselves up as opposition to mainstream, “corporate” media. They have also seized upon claims of political bias in mainstream media (towards liberal or pro-Western ideologies) and have leveraged those to support their own legitimacy.

Additionally, it seems they have co-opted arguments about media literacy (boyd makes this same argument) and critical thinking. The conversation around “fake news” often ends with statements about teaching people to become better consumers of information — to be skeptical as they educate themselves through encounters with online media. Alternative news sites have appropriated these arguments and are using them to support the propagation of alternative narratives and other conspiracy theories.

Consider the text below, an excerpt from the About page of the 21stCenturyWire.com domain:

21stCenturyWire.com is a typical domain in our network graph, positioned in the upper left corner (of Figure 1) and strongly connected to both NoDisinfo and VeteransToday (which both spread strong anti-Semitic content). 59 tweets in our collection linked to this domain, referencing multiple articles explicitly supporting alternative narratives about several mass shootings, including claims that both the Dallas police shootings and the Orlando nightclub shootings were staged events. However, the conspiratorial focus of this domain extended far beyond alternative narratives of shootings. Domain content supported a wide range of conspiratorial themes, with articles promoting claims about vaccines causing autism, government-engineered weather events, George Soros-backed anti-Trump protests, and pedophile rings operated by powerful people. Through our analysis of domain content, we also determined 21stCenturyWire to be strongly supportive of Russian political interests (another prominent theme in our data).

The domain is owned and operated by Patrick Henningsen, a journalist who has worked for RT news, Guardian.co.uk, GlobalResearch.ca, and Infowars.com. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of these domains are nodes in our graph.

Examining the About page of 21stCenturyWire, you can see how the site leverages the (somewhat techno-utopian) rhetoric of freedom of information and citizen-journalism — explicitly encouraging readers to use their own “critical thinking” skills while implicitly complimenting them on those skills and perhaps activating a sense of confidence in their abilities. You can handle this. We’ll give you the facts and you can decide for yourself! The site also claims to be outside both corporate and government control. The first claim represents a somewhat natural counter-positioning — i.e. alternative media against corporate-controlled mainstream media. But the second claim is somewhat disingenuous, as the domain often hosts content that is cross-posted to RT — formerly Russia Today, a media outlet funded and largely controlled by the Russian government.

This kind of positioning of alternative media was typical for the domains we examined. Below is another example, this one from the Purpose & Goals page of the NoDisinfo.com domain:

Notice the language emphasizing how this website provides “facts”. It allows people to “make up their own minds”. Its purpose is to unravel “deception and disinformation”. This framing is likely very intentional, claiming to be presenting unadulterated “truth” and empowering users to perhaps feel that they are discovering that truth within this domain. And users can find all kinds of truth (in the form of conspiracy theories) here — from 9–11 trutherism to claims about possibly apocalyptic effects of the Fukishima nuclear disaster being purposefully obscured by mainstream media.

Summary and Conclusion

This research attempted to take a systematic approach to unpacking the alternative media ecosystem. We focused on “alternative narratives” of crisis events and utilized Twitter data to map the structure of the alternative media ecosystem that drives these narratives. Through content analysis, we found these domains to collectively host many different types of conspiracy theories — from politically-themed narratives about the “New World Order” to anti-vaccine arguments. In this “virtual” world, the Sandy Hook School shootings were staged by crisis actors and the earth is actually flat after all.

We determined a large portion of the content on this network to be political propaganda. For the most part, this political propaganda was focused around “anti-globalism”. This term was used to designate different things in different domains (and even in different articles within the same domains) — e.g. anti-immigration, anti-Western imperialism, anti-corporation, anti-media. Disturbingly, there were also strong currents of antisemitism (sometimes explicit, sometimes less so) across a subsection of this ecosystem. Taken together, these positions seem aligned with and used in support of the rise of nationalist ideologies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

We also noted how the structure of the alternative media ecosystem and the content that is hosted and spread there suggest the use of intentional disinformation tactics — meant to create “muddled thinking” and a general mistrust in information.

Because the underlying in data in this analysis are limited (to tweets about shooting events), future work will be needed to A) assess the broader alternative media ecosystem (our data limited us to a very specific view); and B) determine how influential these media and their messages are on U.S. and global perspectives of world events and science. However, it is clear that information shared within this seemingly fringe information ecosystem is entering the public sphere at large.

When we conducted this analysis in December, many of these alternative news domains were beginning to appropriate the term “fake news” to deflect attacks back onto the mainstream media. Weeks later, newly inaugurated U.S. President Trump echoed this refrain, publicly stating (even tweeting) that various mainstream media outlets and particular stories were “fake news”. Other information trajectories from alternative media websites to public statements by the Trump administration have been identified (e.g. the recent wiretapping claims), and though this does not imply causation, it does indicate a connection between the alternative media ecosystem and the U.S. President. The appointment of Steve Bannon to Trump’s cabinet underscores this connection as well. Before his appointment to Trump’s campaign, Bannon ran Breitbart news, an alternative media website that appears in our data — and one that we determined to have a strong anti-globalist perspective. Indeed, Bannon’s recent comments at the Republican CPAC meeting make this ideological orientation explicit.

While criticizing the mainstream media, Bannon said this: “They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.”

This comment summarizes a great deal of the research we did, demonstrating how criticism of mainstream media (practically etched into the DNA of alternative media) is aligned with a political agenda of anti-globalism in favor of nationalism, and how that agenda is connected to the political orientations and goals of the Trump administration. Perhaps the main contribution of our research is merely to point out that these ideologies are spread within an alternative media ecosystem that utilizes conspiracy theories like Sandy Hook hoax claims and old anti-Semitic narratives to attract readers and support this spread. And that these alternative media websites aren’t focused solely on U.S. far-right or alt-right content, but are also using alt-left content to pull readers into this information ecosystem and the ideologies spreading there.

Most importantly, this work suggests that Alex Jones is indeed a prophet. Seriously, as I read through dozens of these alternative media websites and dug DEEP into their content, I realized that there is an indeed an information war being waged. Three years ago, our lab decided these conspiracy theories were too marginal and salacious to be the focus of our research. Almost that it was beneath our dignity to pay attention to and promote this kind of content. What a terrible mistake that was. It seems to me that we were the only ones who made it. It is (past) time we attend to this (as researchers and designers of the systems that conduct this content). I hope it is not too late.

[Here is a list of the domains that appear in our network graph. Please note that the qualitative coding was done through iterative, interpretive content analysis. It is possible that others may perceive that a different determination (or set of categories) would be better for some of these domains. Please let me know if you feel that there is a systematic coding error or unrecognized pattern in the data, as this work is ongoing and I’d love to be able to incorporate your insights. Thank you.]

 

 

 

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Super Heroes, Super Buddies

here_are_24_of_the_weeks_best_photos_-_the_washington_post

Coincidentally, the following opinion piece by Alexandra Petri in this morning’s Washington Post provide a good extended caption for the Super Heroes photo above, from yesterday’s Post . . . . .


ComPost

Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon: A love story

  February 23
NATIONAL HARBOR — Reince Priebus and Stephen K. Bannon definitely get along. Everything you have heard about their relationship, says Priebus, is wrong. If you have heard that they are slowly engaged in a battle to the death, that is definitely not true. That is their, uh, belligerent chemistry. They are like brothers, Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Nam, just regular brothers.

They are the best of friends, like Frog and Toad, or even Bert and Ernie, if you catch them on the right evening. They talk all night until they fall asleep, holding hands. This is what they told New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi:

“We talk a lot, pretty much all day long,” Priebus said. “And then we communicate at night —”

“Until we fall asleep,” Bannon interjected with a laugh.

Priebus cut in, “Until somebody falls asleep … You fell asleep last night.”

“I did,” Bannon said.

“I think, like, a quarter to 11,” Priebus added.

“I did,” Bannon said.

“He became unresponsive,” Priebus laughed.

Also, they give each other back rubs.

They are like Kirk and Spock, except that the only people writing fanfiction about their relationship are the two of them, together, every time they speak to the media — for instance, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in conversation with Matt Schlapp.

Stephen hates it when people insult his good buddy, Reince. When his old employee Matt Boyle published an anti-Priebus story on Breitbart.com, a website that Bannon is deeply ashamed of, has nothing to do with and is definitely not speaking to now, he was INFURIATED and reportedly made a very strongly-worded phone call to yell at him. Nobody treats his Reince Priebus that way! His Reince is a cinnamon roll who must be protected at all costs. He did not leak the story. No way, no sir, no how! He definitely did not give Reince the nickname “Rancid.” When would he have had time? They are talking to each other every minute of every day. They are holding hands right now, just to hold hands, not because that leaves one less hand free for stabbing in the back. They would never! They would stab one another in the front or not at all.

Really, this is a love story.

What do they love about each other? So, so many things. Priebus loves Bannon’s clothes. “I love how many collars he wears,” he told everyone at CPAC, batting gently at Bannon’s collar. “Interesting look.” Ha, ha, ha, ha!

If anything, they doth not protest enough.

CPAC showcased the exciting chemistry that fans of the Priebus-Bannon franchise have come to look forward to on each media outing. They love to laugh and touch. They are so comfortable with one another. More comfortable than anyone. Their friendship is as slouchy and comfortable as every garment that Bannon has ever put on his body. They are closer than any human beings have ever been, like Holmes and Watson, or a crocodile and a bird that lives in the crocodile’s mouth and cleans its teeth.

They do not share a vision of nationalism based on a certain “culture,” but they do share … an office, with a fireplace and comfy sofas.

They are different, as Bannon acknowledges, but that is just why they work so well together. They complement each other and compliment each other. Bannon is a pile of creepy nationalist conspiracy theories concealed under a big raincoat who made Breitbart the platform for the alt-right (his words, not mine), whereas Priebus is … a human man from the great state of Wisconsin. Why did Donald Trump win? Bannon says it is because America is bound by a certain “culture” and nationalism, in opposition to the media, which he kept cavalierly referring to as the “opposition party.” Priebus says he talked to his neighbor in Kenosha, and his neighbor thought Trump was just great.

And they have so many nice things to say about each other! Kind of!

“He’s very dogged,” Priebus says, “incredibly loyal.” Also “extremely consistent” and “someone that I work with every second of the day.” Are these compliments? They sound like a plea for help. When I try to compliment people, I usually say things like “I cannot stop him” and “He will not change” and “He is like a Roomba that has gone feral, and I cannot escape him no matter how I try.”

“Very important to have in the White House,” Priebus says.

“I’ve been running a little hot on occasion,” Bannon acknowledged, mildly. But he is not there to talk about his expansive vision for “deconstruction of the administrative state” or his enmity for the media, “the opposition party,” or how excited he is to be invited to CPAC after being among the uninvited for so long.

No, he is there to offer mild, back-handed compliments to Reince Priebus. “Reince is indefatigable… He’s always kind of steady… Reince is indefatigable.” The man is NON-STOP! (I know that Stephen Bannon appreciates this reference, because he quipped during the same panel that the campaign was “outgunned, outmanned” and now we must burn all our “Hamilton” references and fumigate the house.)

“Time for a group hug!” moderator Schlapp suggested.

Anyway, those sound like people who love the other person and are not waiting for the other party to blink. (Please blink, oh god, Reince Priebus just wants to go to bed, but what if Stephen Bannon does something when he is asleep? Stephen fall asleep please, oh, God, how many more years of this? Will Reince ever see Kenosha again?) Nothing like that. They are fine. Fine, and very much in love. There is no music to Reince Priebus’s ears like the sweet sound of Stephen Bannon’s voice, which he hears every day, all day from dawn until night. There is no smile that so warms the cockles of Stephen Bannon’s heart like Reince Priebus’s smile when Stephen does one of those classic things he does, like rail against the “corporate, globalist media” or praise Trump as the best rally speaker since William Jennings Bryan. In the chaos of the early days in the White House when no one knew what light switch to use, their hands brushed gently and they smiled. They do not need light. They have each other.

They are two different men, but their bond is unbreakable. They have tried. But when they threw it in the fire hoping to destroy it, like the One Ring, nothing happened. It is Mount Doom or nothing.

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Summary of McMaster’s Vietnam Thesis

from the on-line PowerPost feature by James Hohman, 21 February 2017. There is a separate version of this text, linking to five questions about how McMaster will likely relate to Trump and the inner core of the White House, on page A15 of the print edition of the Washington Post, 23 February.

The Daily 202: Trump’s new national security adviser literally wrote the book on Vietnam

 February 21 

— H.R. McMaster, whom Trump named yesterday as his new national security adviser, understands how corrosive even half-truths can become. After graduating from West Point and fighting with distinction in Desert Storm, he went to the University of North Carolina to earn a doctorate in history. Using declassified documents and interviews to trace the origins of the quagmire in Vietnam, McMaster became convinced that the generals of that time caved to political pressure and supported a war strategy they knew could never prevail. He turned his dissertation into a book called “Dereliction of Duty,” which came out in 1997, when he was a major.

It has developed a cult following among young officers, and it merits a closer study as he takes on one of the most important jobs in the government.

McMaster’s narrative focused on a handful of key decisions that were made from 1963 to 1965. “The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field,” he concluded. “It was lost in Washington, D.C., even before Americans … realized the country was at war. … The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President [Lyndon] Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers. The failings were many and reinforcing: arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.

Johnson was focused on winning a full term in 1964 and didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize his chances. After beating Barry Goldwater in a landslide, he feared that a public debate about Vietnam would undermine his Great Society agenda at home. “The president and the secretary of defense deliberately obscured the nature of decisions made and left undefined the limits that they envisioned on the use of force,” McMaster argued.

The book lamented that “the president’s fixation of short-term political goals” prevented the administration from dealing adequately with the complexities of the situation. “LBJ’s advisory system was structured to achieve consensus and to prevent leaks,” he wrote. “Profoundly insecure and distrustful of anyone but his closest civilian advisers, the president viewed [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] with suspicion. When the situation in Vietnam seemed to demand military action, Johnson did not turn to his military advisers to determine how to solve the problem. He turned instead to his civilian advisers to determine how to postpone a decision.”

McMaster portrays Robert McNamara, a former president of the Ford Motor Company who had become secretary of defense, as foolish. He said that he viewed Vietnam “as another business management problem” and “forged ahead oblivious to the human and psychological complexities of war.” “McNamara and his assistants in the Department of Defense were arrogant,” McMaster wrote. “They disparaged military advice because they thought that their intelligence and analytical methods could compensate for their lack of military experience and education. Indeed military experience seemed to them a liability because military officers took too narrow a view and based their advice on antiquated notions of war.”


The man in charge on the ground in Vietnam also comes across as far too pliant: Gen. William “Westmoreland’s ‘strategy’ of attrition in South Vietnam was, in essence, the absence of a strategy. The result was military activity (bombing North Vietnam and killing the enemy in South Vietnam) that did not aim to achieve a clearly defined objective,” he argues.

His book goes deep in the weeds on process. McMaster, two decades ago, described National Security Council meetings under Johnson as “pro forma affairs in which the president endeavored to build consensus for decisions already made.” Johnson, in fact, made many of his most fateful choices at Tuesday lunch meetings with three of his civilian advisers. The military brass weren’t invited, which led to communication problems.


McMaster referred to the Joint Chiefs during Vietnam as “the five silent men” because they did not challenge the president or alert congressional leaders when Johnson was not being forthcoming about what the escalation in Southeast Asia would actually entail. The chiefs recognized that the Johnson approach was fundamentally flawed, but then they failed to effectively articulate their objections or alternatives. Part of the problem was rivalry between the branches, McMaster explained. The admiral in charge of the Navy used his leverage with the White House to make sure his service retained control of Pacific Command, for example.

A watershed moment came in July 1965. McMaster documented how Johnson had misrepresented the mission of U.S. forces, understated the number of troops that the military had requested and misled Congress about the cost of actions that had already been approved. “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well or, at least, to withhold the whole truth,” McMaster wrote. “Although the president should not have placed the Chiefs in that position, the flag officers should not have tolerated it when he had.” But tolerate it they did. (You can download the full book on Amazon for $3.)

 — McMaster, now 54 and a three-star general, is wading into a very messy situation. He was not Trump’s first choice to replace Michael Flynn. Retired Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward turned down the president last week.

What he has going for him is that he’s widely respected as smart, intense and fiercely outspoken. John Wagner, Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe sketch out some biographical details:

  • “From his earliest moments as an officer, McMaster stood out among his peers. He earned a Silver Star for valor in the 1991 Gulf War when his armor company destroyed a much larger Iraqi formation in one of the opening battles. The Army’s official history of the conflict opened with a vivid description of his tank crew in action that day…
  • In the Iraq War, McMaster commanded a 3,500-soldier brigade in the northern city of Tal Afar, which was being torn apart in 2005 by Iraq’s civil war. He largely jettisoned the Bush administration’s official approach at the time of pulling back from cities and training Iraqi forces to take over the fight so U.S. troops could go home. McMaster pushed his troops deep into Tal Afar, establishing 29 small American-manned command outposts. Instead of focusing on training the Iraqis, McMaster and his troops worked to stop the killing in the city and replace the local mayor and security forces. ‘It’s unclear to me how a higher degree of passivity would advance our mission,’ he said at the time in response to criticism.
  • Eventually his strategy, dubbed ‘clear, hold and build,’ became a model for the broader [surge] campaign, led by Gen. David H. Petraeus, to stabilize Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
  • “McMaster’s passion, intensity and high tolerance for risk sometimes put him at odds with his superiors. He was twice passed over for promotion to general before finally earning one-star rank. The panel that promoted him was led by Petraeus, one of his staunchest backers in the Army…
  • “In recent years McMaster oversaw an anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan for Petraeus that produced mixed results. Of late, he has focused on Army doctrine and modernization, relative backwaters within the service.”

Want to know more about what McMaster achieved in Tal Afar? Read the excellent pieces from 2006 by Tom Ricks in The Post and George Packer in the New Yorker.

 

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Key Element in the Health Care Debate

[For years I’ve maintained that until we get transparency in pricing for health services, we will never begin to solve the access/insurance dilemma. As discussed in this “Wonkblog” article from the Washington Post by Max Ehrenfreund, as a result of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare legislation and a crucial NY State court decision in 2009, some of the price information is now being required, and the resulting analyses have serious and relatively obvious public policy consequences.
Let’s see more of this. (Emphasis added to this article)
bp]

Wonkblog

It’s hard to be a small-time family doctor these days, new data shows

By Max Ehrenfreund                January 9

The price of health insurance just keeps going up. Until recently, though, a crucial part of how those prices are set was invisible to the public: the negotiations between doctors and insurance companies that determine how much patients are charged.

The story of that contest, carried on fiercely behind closed doors for decades, is now partially in public view, and the new data contains tantalizing clues about where prices for health care really come from.

Health-care providers and insurers have to agree on how much doctors will be reimbursed before doctors begin treating insurers’ clients. Those fees, which depend on the two parties’ relative clout, are an important component of the premiums that patients pay to their insurance companies every month.

A survey of the numbers, published this week in Health Affairs, shows that small-time doctor’s offices and insurance companies are getting squeezed by their larger competitors. For instance, small insurers are billed an average of $86 for a routine visit to the doctor’s office, while large insurers are billed just $68.

aa_smallinsurersimrs

Those discrepancies illustrate why joining forces can be so attractive, for both providers and insurers. Currently, four major health insurers have proposed mammoth mergers. Aetna wants a deal with Humana, and Anthem is aiming to acquire Cigna.

Lawyers for the Obama administration are seeking to prevent those firms from merging, arguing that the combined companies would increase prices for patients and put more financial strain on doctors.

In some cases, mergers can benefit patients. Larger hospitals or doctor’s offices might be able to operate more efficiently, reducing costs. Large insurance companies, by bargaining down rates, might be able to offer their customers a better deal.

On the other hand, major providers can demand more generous reimbursements from insurers, increasing costs instead. If insurance conglomerates are not concerned about competition from smaller rivals, meanwhile, the evidence suggests that they simply pocket additional profits rather than reducing prices for patients.

“Consolidation is often associated with higher prices,” said Laurence Baker, an economist at Stanford University who was not involved in the new study. “Really, if you’re a small player, you get a take-it-or-leave-it offer.”

The data in the study comes from claims compiled by Fair Health, a national clearinghouse for health-care data headquartered in New York. The organization is a product of a lawsuit that lawyers for that state brought against the industry; the case was settled in 2009.

What we’ve contributed here is looking at prices in a very detailed way that has rarely been possible,” said Eric Roberts, a health economist at Harvard University and one of the study’s authors. “These dollar discounts represent, actually, a large total sum of money.”

Roberts and his colleagues, Harvard’s Michael Chernew and physician Michael McWilliams, classified doctor’s offices and insurers based on their share of the market in each county. The smallest category included firms with less than 5 percent of the market. Firms with more than 15 percent formed the largest category, and a third category comprised those in between.

Small doctor’s offices billed insurers of medium size $72 on average for an uncomplicated, routine visit. A large office would bill the same insurers an average of $86 for the same visit.

aa_doctorpractice_imrs-php

Since doctor’s offices often agree to calculate all their prices using a single formula, these figures suggest that a group of doctors working in an independent office could increase their revenue by nearly 20 percent if they sold out to a larger partnership.

According to the figures in this study, the greatest financial penalties associated with size seem to fall on small insurers, which pay doctors substantially more than middling insurers pay for the same services.

Yet the authors focused on only three categories of size and did not break down prices paid by insurers with substantially more than 15 percent of the market. As a result, the figures in the paper could underestimate the benefits of being a very large insurer. Stanford’s Baker noted that if two companies such as Anthem and Cigna merged, the resulting conglomerate would have well above 15 percent of the market in many parts of the country.

The study describes the balance of bargaining power between insurers and doctors at one point in time (the data is from 2014), so the numbers reveal little about how recent mergers might have affected the strategic situation for participants in this market or about how future mergers might affect premiums for ordinary people.

One possibility is that mergers among insurers will induce doctors and hospitals to conglomerate as well, which in turn will encourage greater consolidation in the insurance sector, said Diana Moss. She is an economist and the president of the American Antitrust Institute, which advocates competitive markets.

The concern is more than just raising prices to consumers,” Moss said. “If the insurers bulk up to become better bargainers, that creates incentives for the providers to bulk up.”

Max Ehrenfreund writes for Wonkblog and compiles Wonkbook, a daily policy newsletter. You can subscribe here. Before joining The Washington Post, Ehrenfreund wrote for the Washington Monthly and The Sacramento Bee. Follow @MaxEhrenfreund

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Fareed Zakaria: Why Russia Promoted Militarized Information in Response to the Arab Spring

from today’s Washington Post OpEd section.

[Analyses like this from Zakaria are essential to understanding US foreign relations.]

We know what Russia did. But what we really need to understand is why.

 

 Opinion writer January 5 at 7:58 PM

I’m glad that Donald Trump will finally get a briefing on the unanimous conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. But he should also request and receive a political briefing on Russia that can shed light on the backdrop to Russia’s actions. We need to understand why Russia behaved the way it has.

It all started with the Arab Spring. The sudden mass demonstrations and demands for democracy took most of the world by surprise. In particular, they rattled Moscow at a precarious moment. The Kremlin was in the midst of managing the country’s political future and worried about opposition at home. Parliamentary elections were scheduled in less than a year, to be followed by a presidential election. Vladimir Putin was not then president, having stepped aside in keeping with the Russian constitution, allowing Dmitry Medvedev to ascend to the office.

Roland Dannreuther of the University of Westminster in London points out that the “crises in both Libya and Syria coincided with the rise of opposition to the re-election of Putin, with unprecedented large opposition rallies in Moscow and other cities in Russia during 2011-12.” He argues that the Kremlin watched these countries as street protests morphed into broader opposition, created instability, and then attracted the attention and intervention of Western powers. Moscow was determined that no such scenario would play out in Russia or in any of its close neighbors, such as Ukraine.

In fact, there was a rare disagreement between Putin and Medvedev on how to respond to Libya. Putin bitterly attacked his own president for not vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning an intervention in Libya and lambasted the West for launching a “crusade” against a Muslim country. Medvedev, who was technically in charge of foreign policy, flatly contradicted him, calling his rhetoric “inexcusable.” Some Russia hands believe that this disagreement might have sealed Medvedev’s fate, ensuring that he served just one term and then made way for Putin’s return to the presidency. In any event, as Dannreuther writes, “for conservative Russian elites, the evidence of the Arab Spring confirms that such factional divisions in the guise of democracy promotion only lead to internal disorder, societal conflict and the loss of the sovereign integrity of the state.” (The fact that Clinton encouraged Russian democracy protesters at this sensitive moment branded her an archenemy in the eyes of the Kremlin elite.)

U.S. intelligence captured Russian officials’ communications celebrating Trump’s victory

The Post’s Adam Entous reports that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted electronic communications, known as “signals intelligence,” in which top Russian officials celebrated the outcome of the U.S. election. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

About a year later, in 2013, the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, wrote an article suggesting that Russia’s key challenge was responding to the underlying dynamics of the Arab Spring and North Africa’s “color revolutions.” He urged that these not be viewed as non-military events because “a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.” He advocated that Russia better understand and develop the non-military and asymmetrical methods, including special operations, information warfare and the use of internal opposition to cripple a society.

Since then, Moscow has made information and asymmetrical warfare central to its foreign and military policy. When asserting itself in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has used a hybrid strategy that involves the funding of local politicians and militias, fake news and cyberattacks. Leading German and Polish politicians assert that Russia has engaged in some such activities in their countries as well. And now there is the apparent involvement in America’s election.

This is the political backdrop behind the technical evidence that Russia interfered in November’s election. It needs to be moved out of a partisan framework and viewed in a much broader context. Since the end of the Cold War, no major country has challenged the emerging international system. But now, a great-power strategy, designed to work insidiously, could well succeed in sowing doubt, division, discord — and ultimately destruction — within the West.

Read more from Fareed Zakaria’s archivefollow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

 

 

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“Independent Work,” Freelancers, or Capitalist Exploitation?

from the Stanford Social Innovation Review — check at the bottom of this article for a link to a free webinar on this topic on January 25th, 2017, paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Freedom, Insecurity, and Future of Independent Work

With a growing part of the workforce earning a living independently, we need a new system that provides greater stability and security.

By Abigail Carlton, Rachel Korberg, Daniel Pike, & Willa Seldon Dec. 16, 2016

In the United States, we probe and test our economy like a nervous chef roasting a holiday turkey. We know precisely when the unemployment rate dips from 5 percent to 4.9 percent. We track the exact number of jobs the country adds (or loses) each month. When wages tick up ever so slightly, we’re immediately aware.

And yet, for all of our analyzing and auditing of the economy’s performance, many of us have missed a profound shift in the nature of work in America today. Labor economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger estimate that over the past decade, all of America’s net new employment has come from people working in “alternative work arrangements”—that is, temp work, contracting, on-call work, freelancing, or gig work obtained through digital platforms like TaskRabbit and Uber. All of these arrangements stand outside of the traditional employer-employee model.

We recently completed a four-month exploration of independent work in the United States, with a focus on identifying this workforce’s vulnerabilities, as well as promising innovations and opportunities for action. Our investigation included a synthesis of the existing research. We also interviewed researchers and practitioners with diverse perspectives on the shift toward more independent work.

What’s clear is that independent work is now a fundamental part of the economy. Our best estimates suggest there are at least 36 million independent workers in the United States today—roughly a quarter of the workforce. Their share of the labor market could grow from 33 to 50 percent by 2020.

When we look at why independent work is growing, two very different stories emerge. First, there’s the story of higher-skilled, higher-earning workers who want greater autonomy, control, and flexibility in their work than what’s available in most corporate jobs. A recent McKinsey survey of more than 8,000 independent workers found that the majority participate in independent work out of choice rather than necessity, and most are more satisfied with nearly every aspect of their working lives as compared to traditional, full-time employees. Like most independent workers, higher-skilled workers—such as independent consultants or freelance app developers—may experience income instability. But their larger incomes cushion them from unexpected setbacks.

Take Chelsea Ricker, who was once an officer at blue-chip nonprofits like The International Planned Parenthood Federation. She and some colleagues recently struck out on their own as independent consultants and established a social enterprise called the Torchlight Collective. Today, Chelsea has more control over her work and, by extension, her life. Some things are harder, like finding decent-quality healthcare that’s affordable. But she is still working on the issues that matter to her the most, and she’s earning more per hour than she did in full-time, salaried roles.

Then there’s the story of lower-earning workers who can’t find suitable, full-time employment opportunities or are pushed out of conventional jobs. Maybe a robot or software application replaced them. Perhaps the hours were too unpredictable or the working conditions too unsafe. Or their company decided that it needed more flexibility in the increasingly competitive global economy and shifted much of its workforce from employees to contingent labor. Whatever the cause, the result is that these workers often have a less-predictable income and fewer of the benefits typically available to employees, like health insurance and sick days. These workers and their families face significant economic instability.

For example, Fasil Teka lives in Seattle and spends 40 hours a week driving for Uber, in addition to planning parties and driving shuttle buses. As he put it to Wired, he enjoys the flexibility that comes with juggling several gigs, and he’s proud to be an entrepreneur. But he is largely unprotected from the things that can go wrong in life. If he’s out sick with the flu, he can’t earn a day’s pay. Last New Year’s Eve, his car got totaled; the insurance-claims process has been draining and costly. He struggles to save enough to manage life’s ups and downs. If Uber drops him, he most likely would not have unemployment insurance to fall back on, because by law he is not an Uber employee.

An Inaccessible Employment Model

Whether they enter independent work out of choice or necessity, people in such arrangements must try to stitch together the kind of stability and safety nets that conventional, high-quality employment can provide. This includes sick days, family leave for new parents or people caring for elderly or sick family members, insurance for on-the-job injuries, saving for retirement, decent health care, and the stress-reducing dependability of a bi-weekly paycheck.

The system in the United States that aims to ensure security and stability for hardworking Americans—including worker’s compensation, sick leave, minimum wage, and protection from discrimination—was built around a conventional employment model that is now largely inaccessible to independent workers. Similarly, access to reasonable credit often requires proof of regular income from a conventional employer.

With a growing part of the workforce making their livelihoods independently, we need a new system that provides greater stability and security.

Shaping a Stable, Independent Workforce

Fortunately, independent work is a nonpartisan issue. Philanthropists, policymakers, politicians, nonprofits, and private firms have an opportunity, if not an imperative, to help shape the independent workforce so that it both delivers value to the economy and contributes to stable households and communities.

There are many innovators already working on this challenge, with the most activity devoted to increasing access to benefits and enhancing financial and economic stability for workers and their families. Here are three of the many promising innovations we encountered during our exploration.

1. Benefits that “travel” with workers across jobs:
Care.com

Care.com, an online marketplace that connects millions of families with babysitters and other caregivers, has devised a novel innovation to help enhance the stability of the independent workers on its platform. Care.com offers workers an annual cash benefit of $500, which families (clients) pay for through a small surcharge as a “caregiver benefit.” Workers have the flexibility to annually put any or all of the $500 towards health care, transportation, or other work-related expenses. What’s innovative is that the cash benefit remains with independent workers no matter who they work for. Instead of one client providing the benefit, multiple clients contribute at very small levels.

Some cities and the private sector are focusing on broader ways to provide benefits to workers who are not tied to a single employer—through so-called “portable benefits.” Labor advocates are debating whether this would legally obligate companies and other entities to treat independent workers as employees. But leaders at organizations including the Aspen Instituteand Etsy are recommending portable-benefit solutions that could work for employers and independent workers alike.

2. Insuring independent workers against workplace accidents and injuries:
Black Car Fund

Countless independent workers lose income because they aren’t entitled to workers’ compensation—insurance that replaces lost wages and provides medical benefits to workers who are injured on the job. Ester, a domestic worker in San Francisco, pulled her back out while carrying a heavy pail of water up two flights of stairs. Her injury forced her to leave her job. Since she’s an independent worker and not an employee, she’s ineligible for worker’s compensation. A 15-year old innovation shows us one way to help people like Ester:

Created by state statute in 1999, the nonprofit Black Car Fund provides workers’ compensation to limo drivers in the state of New York. Although for-hire drivers are independent contractors, the statute covers them. Passengers pay a 2.5 percent surcharge on their fares, which allows the fund to pay out claims to drivers injured in work-related accidents. The fund targets only workers’ compensation—it doesn’t provide health insurance or cover drivers who crash while commuting to work. Now that it has undergone real-world testing, it might be possible to apply some of its principles to other independent work sectors.

3. A “smart” savings account for ensuring that income still flows during dry spells:
Even

In 2015, the Federal Reserve found that nearly a third of American households experience significant income swings. One of the principal causes is irregular work hours, which plague independent workers. The problem: freelance writers, Uber drivers, and office temps often earn their income in spurts, with surges in some weeks, followed by declines when they are ill or unable to line up the next assignment. They may max out their credit cards to fill the gaps, and pay a price in exorbitant interest fees and mounting stress.

A software app called Even aims to smooth out choppy income streams. As this article in the New York Times explains, when users earn more than their projected weekly salary, the app deposits the extra cash into an Even-managed savings account. When users endure a lean week and earn less, they still get their salary, since Even draws from past surpluses. Users pay a $3 weekly fee for the service, which just might be a reasonable tradeoff when compared to credit card interest rates.

Building Momentum for Change

Our research found that independent workers are a diverse group, who don’t necessarily believe they have much in common. At first glance, Uber drivers in Seattle would seem to be pretty disconnected from domestic workers in New York.

Yet independent workers in different places, industries, and roles share many similar experiences—challenges like economic instability, but also an appreciation for the freedom and entrepreneurship that many types of independent work often bring. As policymakers, philanthropists, private firms, and independent workers themselves come to recognize this, the opportunities for new collaborations and innovations will multiply.

Learn more about these innovations and others in more detail in SSIR’s upcoming webinar, “The Gig Economy.”

Tracker Pixel for Entry

  • Petra Kassun Mutch's avatar

    BY Petra Kassun Mutch

    ON December 18, 2016 04:27 PM

    I am curious to know if the rise in precarious work/gig economy work is also captured as a rise in “entrepreneurship”.  The latter is celebrated. The former worrisome.

    Wondering if we are hipsterizing the fact that jobs are simply disappearing.  We are all entrepeneurs now, like it or not, without benefits.


Notice for a January, 2016, webinar on this topic:

 

COMPLIMENTARY WEBINAR

Today 36 million independent workers in the United States work outside the traditional employer-employee model. By 2020 this number is projected to swell to between 50 and 75 million. How can freelancers and other workers in the emerging “The Gig Economy”stitch together the kind of stability and safety nets that conventional, high quality employment provides? And how can employers who rely on contract workers create access to benefits like sick days and decent health care?

This complimentary SSIR webinar, “The Gig Economy”, will explore the following:

  • Map the current and emerging landscape of independent work
  • Identify the most promising and troubling elements of independent work
  • Generate ideas on what could make independent work more stable and sustainable for workers, especially vulnerable and/or lower skilled workers
  • Highlight promising innovations that are already underway and might be ripe for scaling
  • Share strategies for supporting independent workers and dig into some of the most promising innovations.

Register now! This webinar is highly relevant for social entrepreneurs, researchers, philanthropists, policy makers, leaders of private and public businesses, and, of course, independent workers themselves. It is inspired by SSIR’s article, “The Freedom, Insecurity, and Future of Independent Work”. 

Thanks to the generosity of The Rockefeller Foundation, this webinar is complimentary. Registration to this webinar will include access to the live webinar, unlimited access to the webinar as many times as you’d like for twelve months at your convenience, and downloadable slides.

Speakers
<strong>Abigail Carlton,</strong></br> Managing Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

Abigail Carlton,
Managing Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

<strong>Willa Seldon,</strong></br> Partner, The Bridgespan Group

Willa Seldon,
Partner, The Bridgespan Group

<strong>Sheila Marcelo,</strong></br> Founder, Chair & CEO, Care.com

Sheila Marcelo,
Founder, Chair & CEO, Care.com

<strong>Conor McKay,</strong></br> Director, Future of Work Initiative at Aspen Institute

Conor McKay,
Director, Future of Work Initiative at Aspen Institute

Best,

Eric Nee
Managing Editor
Stanford Social Innovation Review

Register Today

P.S. Away from your desk during this webinar? That’s OK! Register and you can view a recording on-demand three hours after the live event ends.

Sponsored by

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