Propaganda, The New York Times, And The Struggle For Narrative Control

Photo by Marco Lenti, via Unsplash

- Georgi Markov, The Truth That Killed

Yesterday, February 13th, 2021, the New York Times published what can really only be described as a hit piece against Scott Alexander, the formerly pseudonymous author of the popular blog, Slate Star Codex. Purporting to be a “deep dive” into the online community that formed around the blog, the article is really nothing of the sort and comes off as more of a rambling, conspiratorial pot-shot at prominent figures in Silicon Valley venture capital with whom Metz and the New York Times have beef. I will quote almost the whole article herein, but if you really must read it, here is a link that won’t result in any page views or advertising revenue — one theory being that it is bad on purpose to make you click:

The “journalist” community naturally groveled over Metz’s reportage, not to mention his insight and his bravery, liturgically elevating the piece to that ne plus ultra of contemporary legacy media: not merely “true” or “interesting” but important.

Responses from just about everybody else of note have been scathing, usually commenting on how poorly written the article is, that it has no clear argument or purpose, that the doxxing of Alexander was entirely unwarranted, and that almost every single claim is incompetently misleading or an outright lie. In short, it is a bad article. A very, very bad article.

I disagree. When one has imbibed enough Markov, Miłosz, Havel, and the like, one develops a kind of rose-tinted spectacles through which propaganda can be read entirely between the lines. This is not an “article”, nor “journalism” of any kind, hence my repeated use of scare quotes around this almost entirely antiquated word. It is not about the information it conveys.

It is propaganda. It is about how you are expected to behave, having read it. It is effectively written, with clear focus and purpose, containing highly competent lies and deceptions, that hinges around the absolutely necessary doxxing. As such, it deserves thorough literary analysis.

Buckle up.

A Literary Analysis

photo by Max van den Otelaar, via Unsplash

The first four paragraphs can mostly be skipped over as they merely set the scene with an air of aloof detachment befitting of activist “journalism”. Slate Star Codex is introduced to readers who may not be familiar, with the notion that the comment section, “attracted an unusually wide range of voices,” ominously dangled. Then it starts to get tasty:

“The voices also included white supremacists and neo-fascists. The only people who struggled to be heard, Dr. Friedman said, were “social justice warriors.” They were considered a threat to one of the core beliefs driving the discussion: free speech.”

Notice first of all how “social justice warriors” is in quotation marks. This is workable in the sentence because it appears as if it is a quote from David Friedman, which it probably is. But presumably the clause prior to “Dr Friedman” is part of this same quote, so why not include that in quotation marks as well? Because, by isolating “social justice warriors”, Metz plants the possible alternative reading that this is a misleading expression that the reader cannot trust — just like I am doing with “journalist”. Of course, it is a perfectly reasonable expression to use in the context and I guarantee you that Friedman has no such ambiguity in mind when he provided it as a quote. It is a misquote by way of punctuation. What this misrepresentation does is prime the reader to find the argument against the social justice warriors to be ill-conceived at best, prejudicial at worst.

Notice next that “free speech” is alleged to be a “core belief driving the discussion”. I can also guarantee that Friedman did not say this, hence it is suddenly not explicated as a quote — which would be an actual misquote — because “free speech” is not a “belief” to be discussed, it is a principle that guides discussion. Here, Metz is setting up the article’s overall argument: the New York Times’ belief that this principle is illegitimate. But, of course, to make such a case, Metz must present it as a “belief.”

“As the national discourse melted down in 2020, as the presidential race gathered steam, the pandemic spread and protests mounted against police violence, many in the tech industry saw the attitudes fostered on Slate Star Codex as a better way forward. They deeply distrusted the mainstream media and generally preferred discussion to take place on their own terms, without scrutiny from the outside world. The ideas they exchanged were often controversial — connected to gender, race and inherent ability, for example — and voices who might push back were kept at bay.”

I will leave it to the reader’s own recall or investigation how the New York Times may or may not have contributed to such a “meltdown” in 2020. But notice the structure of the first sentence: Slate Star Codex, it is suggested, is a “better way forward”. Better than what? The sentence’s complexity allows Metz to fall back on a comparison to “the national discourse melting down,” all while planting, “protests mount[ing] against police violence,” as an attitude towards which the Slate Star Codex readership might be disinclined. The reader is further primed to regard this group as prejudicial.

Next, we have the first glimpse into one of the things the article is really about: “the tech industry”. I will also leave it to the reader’s initiative to explore why there is literally no such thing as “the tech industry” except as a bogeyman that haunts the psyche of the legacy media, but focus on what it is Metz accuses “the tech industry” of: “prefer[ring] discussion to take place on their own terms, without scrutiny from the outside world.”

What does this mean, in this specific context? We are talking about comments on a public blog, so the idea that they could be “without scrutiny” is asinine. This entire article is scrutiny that has followed from the blog being public. But it is not entirely stupid — sense is to be made of it by linking more closely to the previous clause: “their own terms” is brilliant misdirection because the whole point is that there are no terms, besides those of good manners. Metz — and the New York Times — disapproves thoroughly of this lack of terms. “Without scrutiny,” we realize, does not mean without the ability to evaluate and rebut, but without the ability to control.

That the ideas were “often controversial” is amongst the clumsier prejudicial primings in the article, but it is quickly followed by a handful of cardinal sins of New York Times orthodoxy to avoid the reader wondering for themselves what might count as “controversy”. “Voices who might push back were kept at bay,” means that the conversation went wherever it went and attempts to control it on account of quasi-religious intolerance were frowned upon. It borders on being a lie because, of course, the discussion was entirely open, so the insinuation in “kept at bay” of some kind of force or pressure is a deliberate deception, but is probably too vague to really be a lie.

“Slate Star Codex was a window into the Silicon Valley psyche. There are good reasons to try and understand that psyche, because the decisions made by tech companies and the people who run them eventually affect millions.

And Silicon Valley, a community of iconoclasts, is struggling to decide what’s off limits for all of us.”

This is the meat of the argument, and there is a lot to unpack. Notice there is no justification whatsoever for the segue to “Silicon Valley”. “Bay Area” was cited earlier on as Alexander’s location, as if that were important for a blog, and of course Metz threw in the significand-lacking “tech industry” as well. What is made clear here is that Slate Star Codex and Scott Alexander is itself the segue. It’s a McGuffin, in film lingo; it serves as a trigger for the plot to start moving but is otherwise irrelevant.

The plot is that the New York Times is losing narrative control to a handful of more-or-less open platforms and tools that have historically mostly emerged from Silicon Valley. But “Silicon Valley” is as much a metonym as a location, as the otherwise jarring locating of Slate Star Codex in “the Bay Area” makes clear. The New York Times’ beef is better described as being with the Internet. One day that beef manifests with Clubhouse, a company, the next with Slate Star Codex, a blog.

That Metz describes Silicon Valley — the metonym for those innovating around the Internet’s openness, don’t forget — as “a community of iconoclasts,” is a genuinely beautiful poetic distortion. An “iconoclast” attacks cherished beliefs and institutions. Hence online innovators are painted not as innovating — non-aggressively building superior alternatives to legacy institutions to which users can opt-in on the basis, in part, of allowing beliefs to be freely discussed, cherished or not — but as attacking. Since this “attack” is now “struggling,” surely the New York Times should be treated as the cherished institution it has always been?

“At Twitter and Facebook, leaders were reluctant to remove words from their platforms — even when those words were untrue or could lead to violence. At some A.I. labs, they release products — including facial recognition systems, digital assistants and chatbots — even while knowing they can be biased against women and people of color, and sometimes spew hateful speech.”

Aha! The “evidence” of this struggle, lest we wonder what on earth Metz was talking about. This is so pathetic as to deserve little commentary, as if nothing the New York Times has ever published has been “untrue” or has “led to violence,” but I really can’t help myself in dwelling just for a moment on the idea of “hateful speech from a chatbot.” Think for a moment about the metaphysics required for this to be a coherent notion. Of course, it is perfectly coherent in the ideology of the New York Times, who just recently decided absolutely, on the record, that the intent of speech matters not a jot. Hence chatbots, incapable of intent, are perfectly capable of hate.

“Why hold anything back? That was often the answer a Rationalist would arrive at.

And perhaps the clearest and most influential place to watch that thinking unfold was on Scott Alexander’s blog.”

Why hold anything back?” is a question, not an answer. But it is an answer to Metz, and to the New York Times, a core tenet of whose ideology is to prevent such questions from being asked in the first place, or, if they are asked, to shut down any attempts to answer as quickly and viciously as possible. “… a Rationalist would arrive at” ends a sentence with a preposition: something up with which I will not put. The final sentence is a pathetic loop-closing justification of the introductory McGuffin.

“It is no surprise that this has caught on among the tech industry. The tech industry loves disrupters and disruptive thought,” said Elizabeth Sandifer, a scholar who closely follows and documents the Rationalists. “But this can lead to real problems. The contrarian nature of these ideas makes them appealing to people who maybe don’t think enough about the consequences.”

Here we get to the core of the New York Times’ ideology, conveniently presented not as the command it really is but as the musing of a “scholar,” with whom, surely, only an illiterate peasant would disagree. Note that “contrarian” is misused (not a particularly scholarly start). Ideas can certainly be contrarian but they cannot have a contrarian “nature” because the extent to which they are or are not contrarian is relative to what is popular at a given time. But, naturally, it is part of the New York Times’ ideology that their beliefs are timeless. They know no moral fashions. They have access to absolute truth and absolute goodness.

Note also the sentence is incomplete and, strictly speaking, ungrammatical and nonsensical. “The consequences” … of what? Of thinking? The mask starts to slip here, and the propaganda actually weakens a little because it is too transparently stupid.

The allure of the ideas within Silicon Valley is what made Scott Alexander, who had also written under his given name, Scott XXX, and his blog essential reading.

But in late June of last year, when I approached Mr. XXX to discuss the blog, it vanished.

Firstly, I have undone the doxxing here purely on principle and will continue to do so. Alexander has since started using his real name publicly anyway, but I still feel like quoting it straight from the New York Times rather than from him indirectly condones the New York Times’ behavior, so I will not.

Metz wisely shifts tack from the above slip to inject an element of intrigue into the story and make it seem like actual reporting rather than activism, which it really is. The blog “vanished” because Metz and the New York Times threatened to doxx Alexander for no journalistically relevant reason whatsoever, as is now clear, threatening his livelihood and safety as detailed in his post very helpfully titled, “NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog”. There was, of course, a highly relevant activist reason to doxx him, but we will get to this further down. So no, it didn’t “vanish”, you slimy cretin, you bullied him entirely off the Internet for a short time.

To avoid probing this uncomfortable truth, Metz then jumps to a new section, titled “What The Rationalists Believe”. It’s not worth quoting and analyzing as the most interesting feature is that it doesn’t explore what the Rationalists believe. Metz also characterizes Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson in ways both have objected to immediately after publication.

But then we get to this:

“Many Rationalists embraced “effective altruism,” an effort to remake charity by calculating how many people would benefit from a given donation. Some embraced the online writings of “neoreactionaries” like Curtis Yarvin, who held racist beliefs and decried American democracy. They were mostly white men, but not entirely.

This might seem like a total non sequitur — who cares what else readers of a public blog did? — but is really setting up an even more absurd non sequitur discussion of Yarvin further down. And, of course, Metz has absolutely no idea what the demographics of this group were, but a dog whistle vague enough to be irrefutable does pretty heavy lifting for the word count.

“The community was organized and close-knit. Two Bay Area organizations ran seminars and high-school summer camps on the Rationalist way of thinking.

“The curriculum covers topics from causal modeling and probability to game theory and cognitive science,” read a website promising teens a summer of Rationalist learning. “How can we understand our own reasoning, behavior, and emotions? How can we think more clearly and better achieve our goals?”

They are coming for your children.

“The Rationalists held regular meet-ups around the world, from Silicon Valley to Amsterdam to Australia. Some lived in group houses. Some practiced polyamory. “They are basically just hippies who talk a lot more about Bayes’ theorem than the original hippies,” said Scott Aaronson, a University of Texas professor who has stayed in one of the group houses.”

They are everywhere.

For Kelsey Piper, who embraced these ideas in high school, around 2010, the movement was about learning “how to do good in a world that changes very rapidly.” ”

This, and the remainder of this section, is just anodyne whitewashing in a tragicomic attempt to appear plausibly “balanced”.

The next section reinforces the battle between such “cherished institutions” as the New York Times, and “attacks” from “iconoclasts” in “Silicon Valley”. It’s also not worth quoting as it is pretty boring and amounts to little more than name-dropping important figures in venture capital and repeatedly using variations of “billion-dollar” to connote power and influence.

Throughout, Metz is ostensibly trying to make the argument that Slate Star Codex and Alexander acted as some kind of intellectual focal point for all the shady power that flows around the Bay Area venture capital scene. As with Yarvin above, its only real function is to introduce Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen as particularly shadowy figures to be returned to later on.

But the highlight is the passing reference to one of the most well-known posts on Slate Star Codex, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”, which I am frankly impressed Metz had the guts to link to. He is either too dense to realize that what is meticulously analyzed in that post is a perfect rebuttal to this episode, or he is flexing the New York Times’ own power. Possibly a bit of both. Regardless, the purpose of bringing it up is to flagrantly mischaracterize it as follows:

“Mr. Altman thought the essay nailed a big problem: In the face of the “internet mob” that guarded against sexism and racism, entrepreneurs had less room to explore new ideas.”

I did enjoy putting “internet mob” in quotation marks — the same little trick used above with “social justice warriors” in which unusual sentence structure passes off a quote as a dubious claim, rather than the statement of fact it is. What Metz does here is immediately give the reader a reason not to take the concerns of this blog post seriously because, surely, these “new ideas” are sexist and racist. In fact, maybe the reader should take them seriously, and should be worried! After all, these are people with “billions of dollars” who “don’t think enough about the consequences” …

Then it gets really delicious:

“Part of the appeal of Slate Star Codex, faithful readers said, was Mr. XXX’s willingness to step outside acceptable topics. But he wrote in a wordy, often roundabout way that left many wondering what he really believed.”

I can’t do this final sentence justice, I’m afraid. It is impervious to satire. It is so nakedly ideological that I was at first amazed it slipped through the editorial net — but this was on first reading, before the propagandistic purpose of the article had become entirely clear to me. I will come back to it shortly. In the meantime, some plausibly deniable slander:

“As he explored science, philosophy and A.I., he also argued that the media ignored that men were often harassed by women. He described some feminists as something close to Voldemort, the embodiment of evil in the Harry Potter books. He said that affirmative action was difficult to distinguish from “discriminating against white men.”

Besides the “journalistic” marvel of linking to a refutation of slander over said slander, Alexander himself replied to the Voldemort line succinctly enough to be worth quoting and moving on:

“This is true only in the sense that in 2014, I applied this comparison to a specific group of feminists who I accused of bullying and taunting people in a way that made them traumatized and suicidal. I describe my specific concern in the linked post. Lots of other feminists are great, and I continue to support gender equality.

The New York Times openly advocates for discrimination against white men because it is a noble and righteous thing to do, so this slight falls rather flat.

“In one post, he aligned himself with Charles Murray, who proposed a link between race and I.Q. in “The Bell Curve.” In another, he pointed out that Mr. Murray believes Black people “are genetically less intelligent than white people.””

Again, Alexander himself:

“This is true only insofar as I once expressed agreement with an unrelated position of Charles Murray’s, where he thinks that telling poor people “learn to code” is not a compassionate or sufficient response for dealing with poverty, and that we need to act more decisively by providing poor people with a stable income … The Times points out that I agreed with Murray that poverty was bad, and that also at some other point in my life noted that Murray had offensive views on race, and heavily implies this means I agree with Murray’s offensive views on race. This seems like a weirdly brazen type of falsehood for a major newspaper.”

Next:

“He denounced the neoreactionaries, the anti-democratic, often racist movement popularized by Curtis Yarvin. But he also gave them a platform. His “blog roll” — the blogs he endorsed — included the work of Nick Land, a British philosopher whose writings on race, genetics and intelligence have been embraced by white nationalists.”

This is the bare bones of the New York Times’ ideology. It is not enough to denounce what the New York Times thinks is wrong, what with their access to universal, timeless truth and goodness. You must go out of your way to ensure that the baddies cannot speak at all. “Free speech” is a belief, and a false one. People cannot safely think for themselves. That would be dangerous because they “don’t think enough about the consequences.”

In 2017, Mr. XXX published an essay titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due to Offensive Attitudes.” The main reason computer scientists, mathematicians and other groups were predominantly male was not that the industries were sexist, he argued, but that women were simply less interested in joining.

That week, a Google employee named James Damore wrote a memo arguing that the low number of women in technical positions at the company was a result of biological differences, not anything else — a memo he was later fired over. One Slate Star Codex reader on Reddit noted the similarities to the writing on the blog.

Metz doesn’t make it entirely clear that the first paragraph describes a violation of the New York Times’ ideology, but it is strongly implied. He then lies about James Damore who in fact said that, “the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological differences.” Next, we finally get to the payoff of the otherwise torturous non-sequiturs of Yarvin and Thiel: the need to meander towards Balaji Srinivasan:

“In 2013, Mr. Thiel invested in a technology company founded by Mr. Yarvin. So did the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, led in the investment by Balaji Srinivasan, who was then a general partner.

That year, when the tech news site TechCrunch published an article exploring the links between the neoreactionaries, the Rationalists and Silicon Valley, Mr. Yarvin and Mr. Srinivasan traded emails. Mr. Srinivasan said they could not let that kind of story gain traction. It was a preview of an attitude that I would see unfold when I approached Mr. XXX in the summer of 2020. (Mr. Srinivasan could not be reached for comment.)

“If things get hot, it may be interesting to sic the Dark Enlightenment audience on a single vulnerable hostile reporter to dox them and turn them inside out with hostile reporting sent to *their* advertisers/friends/contacts,” Mr. Srinivasan said in an email viewed by The New York Times, using a term, “Dark Enlightenment,” that was synonymous with the neoreactionary movement.”

It is painfully obvious that this alleged gotcha has been taken out of context, but even with the minimal information given we can tell that Srinivasan is suggesting doing to “journalists” what “journalists” routinely do to others — and not just randomly selected “journalists”, otherwise speaking truth to power, but “hostile” journalists who started the fight in question by speaking power to truth. The asterisks around “their” emphasize this reversal; Srinivasan is proposing retaliation in kind rather than commission.

There is then a bit of a rambly recounting of the foreplay to doxxing Alexander. It’s not worth quoting as it’s pretty boring and only serves to set up this absolute gem:

“Mr. XXX said in a late-night post on Slate Star Codex that he was going to remove his blog from the internet because The Times threatened to reveal his full name. He said this would endanger him and his patients because he had attracted many enemies online.

I woke up the next morning to a torrent of online abuse, as did my editor, who was named in the farewell note. My address and phone number were shared by the blog’s readers on Twitter. Protecting the identity of the man behind Slate Star Codex had turned into a cause among the Rationalists.”

You see, dear reader, the real victim in all of this is … drum roll … Cade Metz! Whodathunkit? All he was trying to do was doxx somebody for no reason bring the truth to light and people were mean to him! They doxxed him! Doxxing is really bad! We have always been at war with Eastasia!

“More than 7,500 people signed a petition urging The Times not to publish his name, including many prominent figures in the tech industry. “Putting his full name in The Times, the petitioners said, “would meaningfully damage public discourse, by discouraging private citizens from sharing their thoughts in blog form.” On the internet, many in Silicon Valley believe, everyone has the right not only to say what they want but to say it anonymously.”

As with, “left many wondering what he really believed,” this is so nakedly ideological as to beggar belief on first pass that they ran with it. But on deeper consideration, this really is the article’s punchline. As we are more or less at the end, I feel we are in a position to explain this. What is the function of these lines?

Propaganda and Purpose

image from PBS

We need to step back a little and appreciate the broader landscape. Hamilton Nolan put it nicely in an October 2020 article in the Columbia Journalism Review:

We are living through a historic, technology-fueled shift in the balance of power between the media and its subjects. The subjects are winning. The internet in general — and social media platforms in particular — have destroyed one of the media’s most important sources of power: being the only place that could offer access to an audience.

Got it? Good, because the article goes on to be wonderfully, horrifyingly frank in its assessment of the position “journalists” are in:

As journalists, we all view this as a horrifying assault on the public’s right to know, and on our own status as brave defenders of the public good. And that is all true, for what it’s worth. But this is about power. We need to take some back, lest the rich and powerful run away from one of the last forces restraining them.

Because journalism, particularly at the highest level, is about raw power.

For what it is worth, I would agree with this if it were actually about journalism. But it is not, it is about activism, hence I refuse to write “journalist” without scare quotes unless actual journalism is taking place. Glenn Greenwald is a journalist. Cade Metz is a “journalist”.

While he drizzles this article with allusions to money, power, and all manner of shady cabals, his target is very clearly regular people who might be tempted to think for themselves and — Heaven forfend — broadcast their thoughts, rather than toe the line of the New York Times.

The reason I call this piece propaganda — and effective propaganda, at that — is that it’s function is to inform and enforce a standard of behavior while only superficially conveying information. It is not about Scott Alexander or Slate Star Codex. It’s barely even pretending to be. Nor is it even about the handful of Silicon Valley figures Metz tries to smear in passing. It’s a spasm of “Journalistic Anxiety”, to paraphrase none other than the New York Times, “fears amongst “journalists” that they are losing status in America … A large if not majority share of “journalists”, and a majority of media personalities, say this change will threaten American customs and values — a prospect that they say makes them anxious, even angry.”

The function of the article is to rattle the New York Times’ cultural saber. To prove, however desperately, that it is still in control of the cultural narrative, and that this control can and will be enforced. This is why Alexander was doxxed: to show that he could be, and so can you, especially if you dare to believe that, “everyone has the right not only to say what they want but to say it anonymously.” The doxxing was not journalistically necessary because Metz is not a journalist. But it was propagandistically necessary. Pour encourager les autres.

And if you do not try to escape their grasp via anonymity, don’t even think about writing, “in a wordy, often roundabout way that leaves many wondering what you really believe.” Make it absolutely clear what you believe, please, and believe what the New York Times believes!

I’m kidding, of course — they don’t say “please.”

“In August, Mr. XXX restored his old blog posts to the internet. And two weeks ago, he relaunched his blog on Substack, a company with ties to both Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator. He gave the blog a new title: Astral Codex Ten. He hinted that Substack paid him $250,000 for a year on the platform. And he indicated the company would give him all the protection he needed.

In his first post, Mr.XXX shared his full name.

See! Doxxing him was no big deal! If anything, we helped him! Besides, the shady cabal of money and power swooped in to take care of the all-important manager of their intellectual focal point. And, if anything, Cade Metz is the real victim, because he has no such ties to shady cabals. Notice, by the way, the use of “with ties to” rather than “with investments from” to make it all sound terribly shady, like how a terrorist group would have ties to Al Qaeda. And how many writers have left the New York Times for Substack? I’m sure that’s just a coincidence …

The Road Ahead

photo by Jakayla Toney, via Unsplash

The New York Times is not a journalistic operation. It is an operation devoted to propagandistic activism, using the cultural legacy of its formerly journalistic apparatus to attempt to enforce a fringe authoritarian ideology. This operation is under threat from a variety of technological advances allowing individuals to bypass its gatekeeping of information and its signaling of moral fashion. As such, it is lashing out — typical symptoms of Journalistic Anxiety.

It is a societal menace. You should treat everything it says or does as in bad faith until proven otherwise. You should block their staff on social media. You should cancel your subscription. You should starve it of revenue and attention so it can expire as quickly as possible and cause as little further harm.

Besides, the money and time you save you can put into Astral Codex Ten. Although, fair warning, you will have to think for yourself.

follow me on Twitter @allenf32

maybe a squirrel. maybe not. views my own, not my employer’s.

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