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US Media Coverage of Anti-Vax Disinformation Quietly Stops at the Pentagon

FAIR - July 12, 2024 - 1:40pm

 

 

Reuters (6/14/24) reported that the US military was behind social media messages like ““COVID came from China and the VACCINE also came from China, don’t trust China!”

Canada-based news agency Reuters (6/14/24) revealed that the Pentagon, beginning in spring 2020, carried out a year-long anti-vax messaging campaign on social media. Reuters reported that the purpose of the clandestine psychological operation was to discredit China’s pandemic relief efforts across Southeast and Central Asia, as well as in parts of the Middle East.

“We weren’t looking at this from a public health perspective,” a “senior military officer involved in the program” told Reuters. “We were looking at how we could drag China through the mud.”

The Reuters report straightforwardly implicated the US military in a lethal propaganda operation targeting vulnerable populations, centrally including the Filipino public, to the end of scoring geostrategic points against China:

To Washington’s alarm, China’s offers of assistance were tilting the geopolitical playing field across the developing world, including in the Philippines, where the government faced upwards of 100,000 infections in the early months of the pandemic.

The findings were unequivocal. In conjunction with private contractors, the US military created and employed fake social media profiles across popular platforms in multiple countries in order to sow doubt, not only about China’s Sinovac immunization, but also about the country’s humanitarian motivations with respect to their dispersal of pandemic-related aid. The news agency quoted “a senior US military officer directly involved in the campaign in Southeast Asia”:  “We didn’t do a good job sharing vaccines with partners…. So what was left to us was to throw shade on China’s.”

Failure to pounce

This New York Times headline (7/3/24), pointedly critical of the Pentagon’s anti-vaccine disinformation, did not appear in the Times newspaper, but only in a subscriber-only newsletter.

One might be forgiven for assuming that US news media editors would pounce on the fact that the most powerful institution in the US, and quite possibly the world, promulgated anti-vax material on social media over the course of a year. However, nearly a month later, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Politico, CNN and MSNBC have yet to cover the news.

The New York Times, which has consistently covered anti-vaccine disinformation (7/24/21, 8/1/21, 12/28/22, 3/16/24) and extremism (3/26/21, 4/5/21, 8/31/21, 6/14/24), has yet to cover the Pentagon’s unparalleled anti-vax indoctrination efforts in its news section; it ran one subscriber-only newsletter opinion piece (7/3/24) on the story nearly three weeks after Reuters‘ revelations.

Meanwhile, independent (Common Dreams, 6/14/24; WSWS, 6/16/24) and international sources (Al Jazeera, 6/14/24; South China Morning Post 6/16/24, 6/17/24, 6/18/24) immediately relayed the revelations.

‘Amplifying the contagion’

Given the Times’ track record in the fight against vaccine disinformation, one might expect to see that paper in particular give this blockbuster news front-page status. After all, the Pentagon was busy secretly inculcating anti-vax attitudes in its targets when Neil MacFarquhar of the Times (3/26/21) warned that “extremist organizations are now bashing the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines in an effort to try to undermine the government.”

In a New York Times Magazine thinkpiece (5/25/22), Moises Velasquez-Manoff took stock of the “nightmarish and bizarre” conspiratorial “skullduggery swirling around vaccines”:

The process of swaying people with messaging that questions vaccines is how disinformation—deliberately fabricated falsehoods and half-truths—becomes misinformation, or incorrect information passed along unwittingly. Motivated by the best intentions, these people nonetheless end up amplifying the contagion, and the damaging impact, of half-truths and distortions.

Anxiety and doubt around immunizations, readers were told, “may be seeping into their relationship with medical science—or governmental mandates—in general.”

Surely this line of reasoning applies as much if not more so to the Pentagon’s anti-vaccine propaganda offensive in Asia and the Middle East: The US military’s own skullduggery has primed countless victims around the world to be more skeptical of medical technology in general.

Even if Americans weren’t targeted by the Pentagon’s scheme, their tax dollars were employed to materially endanger people throughout Asia and the Middle East, and to undermine public health mandates in general. And in the midst of a global pandemic, infections anywhere threaten peoples’ lives everywhere. But the threat of anti-vax disinformation is apparently not a high priority for the establishment press if the US military is implicated.

In keeping with a rich history of obsequious editorial decision-making when it comes to the Pentagon’s activities abroad, this remarkable lack of attention on the part of the Times and the rest of the corporate US press serves as yet another example of corporate media’s timorous attitude towards structural power in this country.

Shelby Green & Selah Goodson Bell on Utility Profiteering, Jane McAlevey on #MeToo & Labor

FAIR - July 12, 2024 - 11:08am

 

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240712.mp3

 

CNN (6/6/24)

This week on CounterSpin: At some point, we will get tired of hearing news reports on “record heat”—because the “records” will continue to be broken,  and “heat” will have stopped meaning what it once may have meant. Media play a role in moving us from questions about where to buy a good air conditioner to what stands in the way of addressing a public health catastrophe? One obstacle is utility companies. In February of last year, we spoke with Shelby Green at Energy and Policy Institute and Selah Goodson Bell at the Center for Biological Diversity, about their research on the topic.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240712Green_Goodson.mp3

 

In These Times (12/27/17)

Also on the show: Some listeners will know that veteran labor organizer and author Jane McAlevey died recently. The tributes are coming in, but I have little doubt in saying that McAlevey would care less for attention to her life in particular than to those of people she worked for, inside and outside of unions. CounterSpin spoke with her in 2018, when the #metoo campaign was coming to fore. We’ll hear some of that conversation this week on the show.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240712McAlevey.mp3

 

Italy’s Antisemitism Scandal Should Have Raised Alarms in US

FAIR - July 9, 2024 - 4:35pm

 

Reuters (6/27/24) noted that Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party “traces its roots to the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed in 1946 as a direct heir of Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement that ruled Italy for more than 20 years.”

An antisemitism scandal has rocked one of Europe’s major far-right political leaders: Giorgia Meloni, prime minister of Italy. It’s been major news in the European press. But the story is being mishandled by major US corporate media, and that fact says a lot about how poorly antisemitism is covered in the United States.

Reuters (6/27/24) reported:

A reporter from online newspaper Fanpage [6/14/24] infiltrated Gioventu Nazionale, Meloni’s rightist Brothers of Italy youth movement, and recorded videos in which members declared themselves fascists and shouted the Nazi slogan “Sieg Heil.”… The investigation also showed a Gioventu Nazionale member mocking Brothers of Italy senator Ester Mieli for her Jewish origin, and revealed chats on messaging platforms where militants took aim at ethnic minorities.

Meloni’s political opponents used this footage against her (Guardian, 6/27/24). She eventually condemned the antisemites (Euronews, 6/29/24). Haaretz (6/30/24) said:

This 12-minute video showed National Youth activists, including two senior figures, singing a celebratory song in honor of the disgraced dictator Benito Mussolini, chanting “Sieg Heil!” and glorifying the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (Armed Revolutionary Nuclei)—a neofascist terrorist group that was active in Italy in the late 1970s and early ’80s, committing over 100 murders.

Neofascist roots

Fanpage (6/14/24) led off its report on Italy’s National Youth by noting that Meloni refers to them as “marvelous young people,” and they are defined as “the soul and the driving force” of her party.
 

This shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Italian politics. The nation’s small but vibrant Jewish population has been skeptical of Meloni’s ascendence and that of her party, Brothers of Italy. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (9/30/22) explained two years ago:

Meloni’s first stop in politics was in the youth movement of the Italian Social Movement, known as MSI, a neofascist party founded in 1946 by people who had worked with Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader from 1922 to 1943. Brothers of Italy is closely tied to the group, even housing its office in the same building where MSI operated and using an identical logo, a tricolor flame.

With Meloni at the helm of one of Europe’s biggest economies, she is not a minor player; in fact, at the last G7 conference, she stood out as a confident leader (AP, 10/18/23; Wall Street Journal, 6/13/24) over a flock of feeble, vulnerable centrists and conservatives.

One of those was Rishi Sunak, who has since lost his job as British prime minister and Conservative Party leader (Guardian, 7/5/24). Another is President Joe Biden, who is being pressured to drop out of the US presidential race due to concerns regarding his cognitive health (New York Times, 6/28/24). And French President Emmanuel Macron has been weakened by the poor performance of his party in snap parliamentary elections (Reuters, 7/7/24).

The summit took place after Meloni’s party increased its share of the popular vote in  the European Union election, and she is now “poised to play a critical role shaping the future direction of EU policy in Brussels” (Politico, 6/13/24).

Late to the story—or absent

The New York Times (7/2/24) led with Meloni “urg[ing] leaders of her political party on Tuesday to reject antisemitism, racism and nostalgia for totalitarian regimes.”

The New York Times (6/11/24) has positively portrayed Meloni as a “critical player” as the host of the G7 conference, and has been upbeat about her rising stature generally. (Her anti-Russian politicking “sealed her credibility as someone who could play an influential role in the top tier of European leaders”—2/7/24.) The Times (7/2/24) came late to the Brother of Italy story , leading with the news of her public relations drive to denounce the racist content. The Washington Post, which also had previously normalized her as a European politician (6/6/24), covered the story in a similar fashion with AP copy (7/3/24).

NPR missed the story. So did CNN. The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board had said she was “governing with some success” (6/13/24), and whose news coverage has portrayed her as a pragmatist (6/13/24), wasn’t interested in  the scandal either.

This lackluster coverage, which at best focused on Meloni’s self-interested damage control rather than the dark ideology at the center of her movement, is confounding. Western media have been rightfully fretting about the far right’s impressive showing in recent EU parliamentary elections (New York Times, 6/9/24). Meloni’s reputation as a strong leader among ailing centrist European leaders is bolstered by other far-right parties making impressive gains.

All of these parties, known for their anti-immigration and anti-multicultural positions, also have tinges of right-wing antisemitism, including Britain’s Reform Party (Haaretz, 6/23/24), Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland (Deutsche Welle, 8/5/23) and France’s National Rally (AP, 7/3/24). In the US, Donald Trump has been careful not to criticize the overt antisemites in the MAGA movement, including the “very fine people” who chanted “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville (Politico, 12/7/22). The Washington Post (10/17/22) noted that Trump has long employed antisemitic tropes in his rhetoric.

A danger signal ignored

The New York Times (12/16/23) is more concerned about the “antisemitism” of protesters who assert “that the war in Gaza was a genocide.”

And so the Fanpage revelations should have been a blaring danger signal, as they were for the European press. The New York Times has been raising alarms (10/31/23, 12/16/23) about a rise of antisemitism since the October 7 attacks in Israel, painting the problem as one that plagues the left and the right. But as FAIR (12/12/23, 12/15/23) has talked about, corporate media are quick to cast legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitism to discredit pro-Palestine points of view, wrongfully equating opposition to genocide with the racist antisemitism of the right.

Regardless of the reason for US corporate media’s oversight, the impact is clear. The press can talk about antisemitism more openly when they can attach it to human rights protesters, but are less eager to describe antisemitism as it actually is: a bigotry that is interwoven with the anti-Islamic and xenophobic platforms of the powerful far right.

‘The Design of These Systems Keeps People in Opposition to Each Other’: CounterSpin interview with Hatim Rahman on algorithms and labor

FAIR - July 9, 2024 - 2:10pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Northwestern University’s Hatim Rahman about algorithms and labor for the July 5, 2024, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

 

Janine Jackson: Many of us have been bewildered and bemused by the experience of walking out of a doctor’s appointment, or a restaurant, and within minutes getting a request to give our experience a five-star rating. What does that mean—for me, for the establishment, for individual workers? Data collection in general is a concept we can all grasp, but what is going on at the unseen backend of these algorithms that we should know about to make individual and societal decisions?

University of California Press (2024)

Hatim Rahman is assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He’s author of the book Inside the Invisible Cage: How Algorithms Control Workers, forthcoming in August from University of California Press. He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Hatim Rahman.

Hatim Rahman: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

JJ: The book has broad implications, but a specific focus. Can you just start us off explaining why you focused your inquiry around what you call “TalentFinder”? What is that, and what’s emblematic or instructive around that example?

HR: Sure, and I want to take you back about a decade ago, when I was a graduate student at Stanford University, in the engineering school, in a department called Management Science and Engineering. And at that time, when I was beginning my studies, there was a lot of talk about the future of work, and how technology, specifically algorithms and artificial intelligence, are going to lead us to the promised land. We are going to be able to choose when to work, how often we want to work, because, essentially, algorithms will allow us to pick the best opportunities and give us fair pay. And from an engineering perspective, there was this idea that it was technically feasible.

But as I began my studies, I realized that the technical features of algorithms or artificial intelligence don’t really tell us the whole story, or really the main story. Instead, these technologies really reflect the priorities of different institutions, organizations and individuals.

And so that’s kind of the through line of the book, but it was playing out in what a lot of people call the “gig economy.” Many of us are familiar with how Uber, Airbnb, even Amazon to a large extent, really accelerated this concept and the idea of the gig economy. And so you mentioned, I found this platform, which I use a pseudonym called TalentFinder, that was trying to use algorithms to create an Amazon for labor. What I mean by that is, just as you pick a product, or maybe a movie or TV show on Netflix, the thought was, if you’re looking to hire somebody to help you create a program, write a blog post, any task that you can think about that’s usually associated with knowledge work, that you could go onto this platform and find that person, again, as I alluded to earlier, just as you find a product.

And the way they were then able to do that, allow anybody to sign up to work or to find somebody, was with the use of these algorithms. And what I found, though, the reality of the situation was, that as the platform scaled, it started to prioritize its own goals, which were often in conflict, or were not shared, with workers on these platforms.

JJ: So let’s talk about that. What do you mean by that, in terms of the different goals of employers and potential workers?

HR: Sure. So it kind of went to the example you started with, that one of the thoughts was—actually, I’m going to take you back even further, to eBay. When eBay started, we take it for granted now, but the thought was, how can I trust that this person I don’t know, I don’t even know them. How can I trust that the images that they’re showing, the description that they put on, is true?

JJ: Right, right.

(via Reddit)

HR:  And so eBay pioneered, really, or at least they’re the most famous example of the early company that started, like, “Hey, one way we can do this is through a rating system.” So I may take a chance and buy a product with somebody I don’t know, and if they send me what they said, I’m going to give them a five-star rating, and if they don’t, I’ll give them a lower rating.

And so since then—that was in the mid-’90s—almost all online platforms and, as you mentioned, organizations and—sorry, it is a small tangent: I was recently traveling, and I saw an airport asking me for my ratings for my bathroom experience.

JJ: Of course, yes. Smiley face, not smiley face.

HR: Exactly, exactly. Everyone copy and pastes that model. And that is helpful in many situations, but it doesn’t capture, a lot of times, the reality of people’s experiences, especially when you think about the context that I talked about. If you hired me to create a software program, and we work together for six months, there are going to be ups and downs. There are going to be things that go well, things that don’t necessarily go well, and what does that mean if you gave me a 4.8 or 4.5, right?

And so this was something that workers picked up on really early on in the platform, that these ratings, they don’t really tell the whole experience, but the algorithms will use those ratings to suggest, and people will use the search results that the algorithms curate, to make decisions about who to hire, and so on and so forth.

The problem that I traced, over the evolution of the platform, is that once workers realized that it was really important, they found out ways to game the system, essentially, to get a five-star rating all the time. And from speaking to workers, they felt this was justified, because a lot of times in an organization that hires them, they mismanage the project….

And so, in response, what the platform did, and now again almost all platforms do this, they made their algorithm opaque to workers. So workers no longer understood, or had very little understanding, of what actions were being evaluated, how they were being evaluated, and then what was the algorithm doing with it.

So, for example, if I responded to somebody faster than the other person, would the algorithm interpret that as me being a good worker or not? All of that, without notice or recourse, became opaque to them.

I liken it to, if you received a grade in class, but you don’t know why you got that grade. And, actually, many of us may have experienced this going through school; you hear this “participation grade,” and it’s like, “Wait, I didn’t know that was a grade, or why the professor gave me this grade.”

So that does happen in human life as well. One of the points I make in the book is that as we turn towards algorithms and artificial intelligence, the speed and scale at which this can happen is somewhat unprecedented.

Jacobin (2/20/18)

JJ: Right, and I’m hearing Taylorism here, and just measuring people. And I know that the book is basically engaged with higher-wage workers, and it’s not so much about warehouse workers who are being timed, and they don’t get a bathroom break. But it’s still relevant to that. It’s still part of this same conversation that’s categorically different; algorithm-driven or determined work changes, doesn’t it, the basic relationship between employers and employees? There’s something important that is shifting here.

HR: That’s correct. And you are right that one of the points that I make in the book, and there’s been a lot of great research and exposés about the workers that you mentioned, in Amazon factories and other contexts as well, that we’ve seen a continuation of Taylorism. And for those who are less familiar, that essentially means that you can very closely monitor and measure workers.

And they know that, too. They know what you’re monitoring, and they know what you’re measuring. And so they will often, to the detriment of their physical health and well-being, try to conform to those standards.

And one of the points I make in the book is that when the standards are clear, or what you expect them to do is comparatively straightforward—you know, make sure you pack this many boxes—we will likely see this enhanced Taylorism. The issue that I’m getting at in my book is that, as you mentioned, we’re seeing similar types of dynamics being employed, even when the criteria by which to grade people or evaluate people is less clear.

So, again, for a lot of people who are engaged in knowledge work, you may know what you want, but how you get there….  If you were to write a paper or even compose a speech, you may know what you want, but how you’re going to get there—are you going to take a walk to think about what you’re going to say, are you going to read something unrelated? It’s less clear to an algorithm whether that should be rewarded or not. But there is this attempt to try to, especially in trying to differentiate workers in the context that I mentioned.

So the problem with everyone having a five-star rating on eBay or Amazon, or on TalentFinder that I studied, is that for people who are trying to then use those ratings, including algorithms, it doesn’t give any signal if everyone has the same five-star rating. In situations and contexts where you want differentiation, so you want to know who’s the best comparatively to other people on the platform, or what’s the best movie in this action category or in the comedy category compared to others, then you’re going to try to create some sort of ranking hierarchy. And that’s where I highlight that we’re more likely to see what I call this “invisible cage” metaphor, where the criteria and how you’re evaluated becomes opaque and changing.

JJ: I think it’s so important to highlight the differentiation between workers and consumers. There’s this notion, or this framework, that the folks who are working, who are on the clock and being measured in this way, somehow they’re posed or pitted against consumers. The idea is that you’re not serving consumers properly. And it’s so weird to me, because consumers are workers, workers are consumers. There’s something very artificial about the whole framework for me.

HR: This is returning to one of the earlier points that I mentioned, is that we have to examine what in my discipline we call the “employment relationship.” How are people tied together, or not tied together? So in the case that you mentioned, many times consumers are kept distant from workers; they aren’t necessarily even aware, or if they are aware, they aren’t given much opportunity.

So generally speaking, for a long time, like Uber and Lyft—especially in the earlier versions of the platform; they change very rapidly—they don’t necessarily want you to call the same driver every time, [even] if you have a good relationship with them. So that’s what you mentioned, that the design of these systems sometimes keeps people in opposition with each other, which is problematic, because that’s not the technology doing that, right? That’s the organization, and sometimes the laws that are involved, that don’t allow for consumers and workers, or people more broadly, to be able to talk to each other in meaningful ways.

And in my case, on TalentFinder as well, I spoke to clients, consumers or people who are hiring these workers, and a lot of them were just unaware. They’re like, “Oh my gosh.” I highlighted in the book that they designed the rating system to say, “Just give us your feedback. This is private. We just want it to improve how the platform operates.” What they don’t tell them is that if they were to give them something slightly less than ideal, it could really imperil the workers‘ opportunity to get a next job.

We sometimes refer to this as an information asymmetry, where the platform, or the organizations, they have more information, and are able to use it in ways that are advantageous to them, but are less advantageous to the workers and consumers that are using these services.

JJ: And part of what you talk about in the book is just that opacity, that organizations are collecting information, perhaps nominally in service of consumers and the “consumer experience,” but it’s opaque. It’s not information that folks could get access to, and that’s part of the problem.

Hatim Rahman: “If you are a worker, or if you are the one who is being evaluated, it’s not only you don’t know the criteria, but it could be changing.”

HR: That’s right. It goes to this point that these technologies, they can be transparent, they can be made accountable, if organizations, or in combination with lawmakers mandating, take those steps to do so. And we saw this early on on the platform that I study, and also on YouTube and many other platforms, where they were very transparent about, “Hey, the number of likes that you get or the number of five ratings you get, we’re going to use that to determine where you show up in the search results, whether we’re going to suggest you to a consumer or a client.”

However, we’ve increasingly seen, with the different interests that are involved, that platforms no longer reveal that information, so that if you are a worker, or if you are the one who is being evaluated, it’s not only you don’t know the criteria, but it could be changing. So today, it could be how fast you respond to somebody’s message. Tomorrow, it might be how many times did you log into the platform.

And that’s problematic, because if you think about learning, the ability to learn, it fundamentally relies on being able to establish a relationship between what you observe, or what you do, and the outcome that leads to. And when that becomes opaque, and it’s so easy to change dynamically—sometimes even, let’s put aside day-to-day, maybe hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute—those really kind of supercharge the capabilities to what I call enable this dynamic opacity.

JJ: And not for nothing, but it’s clear that in terms of worker solidarity, in terms of workers sharing communication with each other, put it simple, workers need to communicate with other workers about what they’re getting paid, about their experience on the job. This is anti all of that.

HR: In related research, for my own and others, we have tried to examine this as well, especially gig work; the setup of this work makes it very difficult for workers to organize together in ways that are sustainable. Not only that, many workers may be drifting in and out of these platforms, which again makes it harder, because they’re not employees, they’re not full-time employees. And I talk to people in the book, I mentioned people, they’re between jobs, so they just want to kind of work on it.

So in almost every way, from the design of the platform to employment relationship, the barriers to create meaningful, sustainable alternatives, or resistance or solidarity, becomes that much more difficult. That doesn’t mean workers aren’t trying; they are, and there are organizations out there, one called Fairwork and others, that are trying to create more sustainable partnerships, that will allow workers to collectively share their voices, so that hopefully there are mutually beneficial outcomes.

I talked about this earlier; I mean, just to connect again with history, I think we can all agree that it’s good that children are not allowed to work in factories. There was a time when that was allowed, right? But we saw the effects that could have on the injuries, and just overall in terms of people’s development. And so we need to have this push and pull to create more mutually beneficial outcomes, which currently isn’t occurring to the same extent on a lot of these gigs and digital platforms.

JJ: Finally, first of all, you’re highlighting this need for interclass solidarity, because this is lawyers, doctors—everybody’s in on this. Everybody has a problem with this, and that’s important. But also, so many tech changes, people feel like they’re just things that happen to them. In the same way that climate change, it’s just a thing that’s happening to me. And we are encouraged into this kind of passivity, unfortunately. But there are ways to move forward. There are ways to talk about this. And I just wonder, what do you think is the political piece of this, or where are meaningful points of intervention?

Consumer Reports (5/07)

HR: That’s a great question. I do like to think about this through the different lenses that you mentioned. What can I do as an individual? What can I do in my organization? And what can we do at the political level? And, briefly, on the individual consumer level, we do have power, and we do have a voice, going back to the past, right? Consumer Reports. Think about that. Who was that started by? And that had a very influential difference on the way different industries ran.

And we’ve seen that, also, for sustainability. There’s a lot of third-party rating systems started by consumers that have pushed organizations towards better practices.

So I know that may sound difficult as well, but as I mentioned, there’s this organization called Fairwork that is trying to do this in the digital labor context.

So I would say that you don’t have to do it on your own. There are existing platforms and movements, as individuals, that you can try to tap onto, and to share these what we call again third-party alternative rating systems, that we can collectively say, “Hey, let’s use our economic power, our political power, to transact on platforms that have more transparency or more accountability, that are more sustainable, that treat workers better.” So that’s one, on the political level.

Maybe my disposition is a little bit more optimistic, but I think that we’ve seen, in the last few years, with the outsized impact social media has suggested it’s had on our discourse and politics, that politicians are more willing than before, and I know sometimes the bar is really low, but still, again, on the optimistic side, that they’re at least willing to listen, and hopefully work with these platforms, or the workers on the platforms, because, again, I really fundamentally feel that ensuring that these technologies and these platforms reflect our mutual priorities is going to be better for these organizations and society and workers in the long term as well.

We don’t want to just kick the can down the road, because of what you talked about earlier, as it relates to climate change and CO2 emissions; we’ve been kicking it down the road, and we are collectively seeing the trauma as it relates to heat exhaustion, hurricanes….

And so, of course, that should be warning signs for us, that trying to work together now, at all of those different levels, is necessary. There’s not a silver bullet. We need all hands on deck from all areas and angles to be able to push forward.

JJ: I thank you very much for that. I co-sign that 100%.

We’ve been speaking with Hatim Rahman. He’s assistant professor at Northwestern University. The book we’re talking about is Inside the Invisible Cage: How Algorithms Control Workers. It’s out next month from University of California Press. Hatim Rahman, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

HR: Thank you for having me.

 

‘You Have People Who Only Look at Marijuana Legalization as Another Way to Make Money’: CounterSpin interview with Tauhid Chappell on cannabis equity

FAIR - July 5, 2024 - 6:12pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed Thomas Jefferson University’s Tauhid Chappell about cannabis equity for the June 28, 2024 episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240628Chappell.mp3

 

Extra! (2/13)

Janine Jackson: Marijuana use in this country has always been racialized. The first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, ran an anti-marijuana crusade in the 1930s, including the message that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” So concerns were justified about what the legalization and profitizing of marijuana would mean for the people and communities most harmed by its criminalization.

Tauhid Chappell has worked on these issues for years now. He teaches, at Thomas Jefferson University, the country’s first graduate-level course studying the impact and outcomes of equity movements in the cannabis industry. And he joins us now by phone from Maine. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Tauhid Chappell.

Tauhid Chappell: Always a pleasure.

JJ: When we spoke with you last year, you helped debunk a lot of Reefer Madness–style fear-mongering around supposed social harm stemming from the legalization of marijuana. There was old-school “gateway drug” language, marijuana was going to on-ramp folks to opioid use. It was going to lead to traffic accidents, and use among teenagers was supposedly going to skyrocket. We are further along now; what more have we learned about those kinds of concerns?

TC: I can happily report that as far as the ongoing reports that are coming out of what we call “mature markets”—states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, even California—teen use has not been severely impacted. In fact, I believe that there’s a Colorado study that says that teen use has actually declined with legalization.

Opioid use has not suddenly gone up because of marijuana legalization. In fact, many states, in their medical marijuana programs, have used opioid reduction as a reason why patients should be using cannabis, to actually get them off of opioid addiction, until we are actually seeing a reverse, of people who get on cannabis actually now starting to lessen the amount of opioids they use in their regimen.

JJ: Well, the worry of many of us was that marijuana becoming legal would just blow past the fact that there are people in prison, mainly Black and brown people, for what now some other folks stand to profit from, that legalization would not include acknowledgement, much less reparation, for the decades in which whole communities were critically harmed. And then we just kind of say, “Hey, we’ve moved on, and now everybody loves weed.” What can you tell us about efforts to center those harmed by illegality in this new landscape of legal cannabis?

 

Tauhid Chappell: “How can we broaden our pardons and broaden our expungements, and expedite and automatically create these opportunities for people to move past these convictions?”

TC: There is still much work to be done in the social and racial justice that would bring a reparative nature to the people, to the individuals, and their families and their communities, that have been impacted by cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs. Some states are trying to really focus on justice-impacted people to participate in the cannabis industry. Others are focusing on just trying to expunge records, pardon people, and that’s that. And then other states are not even contemplating or really moving to center people who have been impacted by incarceration, or are still incarcerated for marijuana, and other related offenses, too.

So you have a patchwork of states that are doing well and can be doing better, and then other states who really need to prioritize and focus on individuals and families and communities who’ve been impacted by the war on drugs.

Most recently in the news, Maryland’s governor has just pardoned 175,000 people for simple possession of marijuana, a typical charge that has impacted so many people in the past. That is something that I encourage other states to look at as advocates for more healing and repairing to happen for those that have been previously and currently impacted from their incarceration due to cannabis prohibition.

And then the one thing that I’ll also mention, too, in terms of focus on those that have been impacted by the war on drugs, I encourage other states to look at Illinois’ R3 Program, which I believe is the Repair, Reinvest and Restore program, that specifically designates cannabis tax revenue to be utilized as grants, not loans, as grants that different organizations can apply for to help expand their programming that goes into communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

You don’t have a whole lot of states that are utilizing cannabis tax revenue to go back into communities that have been disproportionately harmed. And you don’t have a lot of states that are trying to figure out: How can we broaden our pardons and broaden our expungements, and expedite and automatically create these opportunities for people to move past these convictions and get back into society as a normal, average citizen?

So there is more work to be done. I don’t think it’s ever going to be over, in terms of people asking, calling for repair from the harms of the war on drugs. But if we can continuously see more governors, more legislatures expand the definition and criteria of who can get a pardon, who can get an expungement for marijuana-related arrest, that’s going to help a lot more people out.

CounterSpin (12/18/18)

JJ: Let me ask you, finally, about journalism. When I was talking on this subject back in 2018, with Art Way from Drug Policy Alliance, we were talking about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at that point, saying “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” That was the level of the conversation. I know it might sound clownish to some people, but you’d be wrong to imagine that those attitudes are not still in the mix somewhere. You have worked in news media, you know the pushes and pulls on reporters. What would you like to see in terms of media coverage of this issue?

TC: I would like to have a lot more reporters be serious about the ongoing, what I believe is nefarious behavior by a lot of these large, well-capitalized—I’m talking tens of millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars—capitalized multi-state operators that are really scheming to try to have a monopoly in different states. You have different large companies that have started early in other states like California, Oregon and Washington, realize that there’s too much competition and now are actually shutting down their operations on the West Coast and focusing on strongholds that they may have in other states, that may not have as much of a mature or expansive market.

There are companies like GTI that are really trying to capture Massachusetts’ market, for example. We have other major companies, like Trulieve, that are trying to really own their monopoly in Florida, right? You have other companies that exist in states like Pennsylvania, where it’s only medical, where the only dispensaries and processors, the majority of cultivators, are all out-of-state operators, people who don’t even live in Pennsylvania. You have companies like Curaleaf—Curaleaf is one of the largest cannabis companies in the country—really trying to double down their efforts in Pennsylvania, in New Jersey and other states, and make sure that no one else can really participate in the market.

I would really love more investigative journalism done to see how are these businesses forming? How are they collaborating and working with each other, even as competitors, and what are they doing at the policy and law level to change regulations that make it more favorable to them, and cut out small-business operators, justice-involved operators, equity operators? What are these large companies doing to lobby? Because, as cannabis legalization continues to be expansive, and now we’re talking about potential rescheduling of marijuana, to Schedule 3, at the federal level, you’re going to see these bigger companies come in and try to capture the market share and push everybody out.

We understand that people who have been directly impacted by a marijuana arrest, if they want to get into the business of marijuana and get a cannabis license, it makes sense for them to be supported and to be educated and to be nurtured for success, because that’s what they deserve after everything that they’ve been through.

Not everyone believes or cares about or shares that same sentiment. You have people who only look at marijuana legalization as another way to make money, and that’s all they want.

And so many of these bigger companies are doing all this shadow work behind the scenes. I would really love more journalists to really look at that, really connect the dots. This isn’t just a state-by-state level. These are companies that are working collectively together in multiple states to make sure that they’re the only players in the market. I would love more investigations behind these bigger companies.

JJ: All right, then; we’ll end on that note for now.

We’ve been speaking with Tauhid Chappell of Thomas Jefferson University. Tauhid Chappell, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

TC: Thank you for having me.

 

Hatim Rahman on Algorithms’ ‘Invisible Cage’

FAIR - July 5, 2024 - 10:49am

 

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240705.mp3

 

University of California Press (2024)

This week on CounterSpin: The power of the algorithm is ever clearer in our lives, even if we don’t understand it. You might see it as deciding what you see on social media sites, where maybe they get it wrong: You don’t actually want to see a lot of horror movies, or buy an air fryer; you just clicked on that once.

But algorithms don’t only just guess at what you might like to buy; sometimes they’re determining whether you get a job, or keep it. Some 40 million people in the US use online platforms to find work, to find livelihood. The algorithms these platforms use create an environment where organizations enact rules for workers’ behavior, reward and sanction them based on that, but never allow workers to see these accountancies that make their lives unpredictable, much less work with them to develop measurements that would be meaningful.

Hatim Rahman has been working on this question; he’s assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. And he’s author of a new book about it: Inside the Invisible Cage: How Algorithms Control Workers, forthcoming in August from University of California Press.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240705Rahman.mp3

 

Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent press coverage of climate disruption.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240705Banter.mp3

 

NYT Unleashes the Lab Leak Theory on the Public Debate Once Again

FAIR - July 3, 2024 - 10:12am

 

The New York Times‘ op-ed (6/3/24) broke little new ground but arrived at a timely moment for the public debate.

The lab leak theory of Covid-19’s origins has been something of a zombie idea in public discourse, popping up again and again in corporate media despite numerous proclamations that it’s finally been debunked (Conversation, 8/14/22; Atlantic, 3/1/23; LA Times, 6/26/23).

The most recent resuscitation of the theory came in the form of a New York Times guest essay (6/3/24), provocatively headlined “Why the Pandemic Probably Started in a Lab, in Five Key Points”—and notably published the day of a congressional subcommittee grilling of Dr. Anthony Fauci over, among other things, his supposed role in a lab leak cover-up. The paper further bolstered the theory in the Times’ flagship Morning newsletter (6/14/24), which spotlighted Chan’s op-ed.

The author of the guest essay, Dr. Alina Chan, is a well-known proponent of a lab leak origin for SARS-CoV-2 (MIT Technology Review, 6/25/21). Her biggest claim to fame is probably the 2021 book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, which she co-authored with London Times science writer Matt Ridley. The book’s case for Covid’s origin in a lab leak was criticized for the evidence—or lack thereof—it presented (New Republic, 12/10/21).

Her guest essay reiterates the book’s arguments. But it also recapitulates the misrepresentation, selective quotation and faulty logic that has characterized so much of the pro—lab leak side of the Covid origin discourse.

Misleading air of authority

Chan’s co-author of Viral, Matt Ridley, is a coal-mine owner who argues that “global warming is good for us.”

Under her byline, the Times identified Chan as a “molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and a co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19.”

While true, it’s important to note that Chan’s expertise is neither in epidemiology nor virology, but in gene therapy and synthetic biology, meaning she isn’t exactly a subject expert when it comes to the fields most relevant to SARS-CoV-2 research. But that’s far from clear to the average Times reader, for whom such a bio suggests that Chan is an authoritative figure on the subject.

What’s more, the paper produced flashy data visualizations to accompany the piece and help Chan make her case, lending the paper’s institutional credibility to her argument. That same institutional credibility was further invoked by Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci, who shared the article on X the day it was published, proudly stating: “Yes, it’s factchecked. And we now know many outspoken experts opposed to this made similar points in PRIVATE.”

But that credibility is not earned by the quality of the underlying evidence Chan offers.

Lacking critical context

Many of Chan’s arguments aren’t new and have already been discussed in depth in a previous FAIR article (6/28/21), so I’ll be mostly focusing on points not already discussed there.

Near the beginning of the essay, Chan makes multiple dubiously selective references to Shi Zhengli, a WIV scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who has received copious attention in discussions of a hypothetical escape of Covid from that lab (MIT Technology Review, 2/9/22).

Chan’s theory benefits from selective retelling of a story told more fully by Scientific American (6/1/20).

Chan notes that at the start of the outbreak, Shi “initially wondered if the novel coronavirus had come from her laboratory, saying she had never expected such an outbreak to occur in Wuhan.”

Mentioning this worry to journalists would be a relatively strange thing to do for someone trying to cover up a leak from their lab, which Chan has implied on multiple occasions that the WIV researchers are doing (MIT Technology Review, 6/25/21, 2/9/22; Boston, 9/9/20). Chan also leaves out the vital context that Shi says that in response to her worry, she went through the lab’s records to check if it could have been the source, and found that it couldn’t have been (Scientific American, 6/1/20):

Meanwhile, she frantically went through her own lab’s records from the past few years to check for any mishandling of experimental materials, especially during disposal. Shi breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: None of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves. “That really took a load off my mind,” she says. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

At another point, Chan asserts that Shi’s group had published a database containing descriptions of over 22,000 wildlife samples, but that database was taken offline in fall of 2019, around the same time as the pandemic began. The implication is clear: that this action was taken in order to hide the presence of SARS-CoV-2, or a virus close enough to be its predecessor, in WIV custody.

Again, Chan doesn’t mention the reason given, that repeated hacking attempts at the onset of the pandemic led the institute to take their databases offline out of fear that they might be compromised. Nor does she address Shi’s claim that the databases only contained already published material (MIT Technology Review, 2/9/22).

It’s possible Chan believes that these are all lies told in defense of a Chinese coverup, but to not even mention these not-implausible explanations belies a biased and selective presentation.

Schrodinger’s proposal

Chan goes on to argue, “The year before the outbreak, the Wuhan institute, working with US partners, had proposed creating viruses with SARS‑CoV‑2’s defining feature.”

This talking point should be familiar to anyone who has been keeping up with the cyclical resurgences of the lab leak theory over the last few years; a key piece of evidence they point to is a leaked 2018 research proposal by the name of Defuse, which was published three years ago by the Intercept (9/23/21).

The proposal is presented as a damning piece of evidence, with Chan stating that the proposed viruses would have been “shockingly similar to SARS-CoV-2.” She admits that this proposal was rejected by DARPA—in part specifically because it involved modifying viruses in ways that were viewed as overly risky—and never actually received funding. But she still posits that the WIV could have pursued research like it, despite presenting no actual evidence that this ever occurred.

Chan engages in a large amount of conjecture stacking in this section, placing unsubstantiated claim atop unsubstantiated claim to produce an argument that looks compelling at a glance but sits upon a pile of what-ifs.

The entire narrative relies on the assumption that a virus similar enough in structure to have become SARS-CoV-2 was present in the WIV at some point before the pandemic, but Chan never presents anything to substantiate this. None of the known viruses within the WIV’s catalog could have been the progenitor, with even the closest virus there—RaTG13—merely seeming to share a common ancestor.

A less-than-alarming detail

A Wall Street Journal article (6/20/23), cited by Chan, about sick researchers at the Wuhan lab left out the key detail that, according to US intelligence, the researchers had “symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with Covid-19.”

Her point relating to sick scientists is possibly the most dishonest aspect of the entire piece. Chan states that “one alarming detail—leaked to the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by current and former US government officials—is that scientists on Dr. Shi’s team fell ill with Covid-like symptoms in the fall of 2019.”

If you only read the Journal article (6/20/23) Chan links to, you may be convinced that these cases represent serious evidence. However, the US intelligence report these claims of sick researchers originate from, which has since been made public, clearly shows the weakness of the claim:

While several WIV researchers fell mildly ill in fall 2019, they experienced a range of symptoms consistent with colds or allergies with accompanying symptoms typically not associated with Covid-19, and some of them were confirmed to have been sick with other illnesses unrelated to Covid-19. While some of these researchers had historically conducted research into animal respiratory viruses, we are unable to confirm if any of them handled live viruses in the work they performed prior to falling ill.

So the intelligence community was unable to establish that any of the researchers actually had Covid-19 and in fact collected information that showed they presented with symptoms consistent with colds or allergies and inconsistent with Covid, with some even confirmed to have been sick with unrelated illnesses.

This is something the Times should have caught and addressed during a rudimentary factcheck.

Meanwhile, the WIV denies the allegations, and challenged its accusers to produce the names of its researchers who were Covid-19 vectors. Chan’s “alarming detail” is therefore both unsubstantiated and dependent upon the existence of a coverup at the WIV.

Weighing the evidence

New evidence that the virus originated at the Wuhan wet market (New York Times, 2/27/22) didn’t make Chan any less confident in her theory.

The final stage of Chan’s argument is identifying deficiencies in the zoonotic spillover theory. She maintains that Chinese investigators, believing early on that the outbreak had begun at a central market, had collected data in a biased manner that likely missed cases unlinked to the market.

She links to a letter to the editor in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (3/20/24) that criticized one of the major market-origin papers (Woroby et al, 2021) on the grounds that it suffered from a large degree of location bias. Consistent with Chan’s habit of ignoring arguments contrary to her thesis, she fails to mention the rebuttal produced by one of the paper’s authors, alongside another researcher.

It’s true that the evidence on the spillover side is currently incomplete; however, this isn’t necessarily damning. It took over a year to identify the intermediary hosts of MERS; we still haven’t found the one suspected to exist for HCOV-HKU1, first described in 2004; and finding the natural reservoir from which SARS stemmed was a decade-long endeavor (Scientific American, 6/1/20).

Still, the circumstantial evidence present for zoonotic spillover is strong. Early Covid-19 cases, as well as excess deaths from pneumonia—a metric far less likely to suffer from the potential bias Chan mentions—cluster around the Huannan wet market, not the WIV. Multiple distinct lineages of SARS-CoV-2 were also associated with the wet market, as would be expected if it were in fact the origination point.

In fact, five positive samples were discovered in a single stall that had been known to sell raccoon dogs, one of the animals suspected as a possible intermediate host for SARS-CoV-2 (New York Times, 2/27/22).

As a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence surrounding the origins of SARS-CoV-2, published in the Annual Review of Virology (4/17/24), states in no uncertain terms:

The available data clearly point to a natural zoonotic emergence within, or closely linked to, the Huannan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. There is no direct evidence linking the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 to laboratory work conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

False equivalence 

The New York Times‘ David Leonhardt (Morning, 6/14/24) presents evidence and speculation as equally compelling.

Days after the guest essay’s release, the Times featured it in their popular Morning newsletter (6/14/24), under the headline, “Two Covid Theories: Was the Pandemic Started by a Lab Leak or by Natural Transmission? We Look at the Evidence.”

Newsletter writer David Leonhardt situated the debate by explaining that “US officials remain divided” on which theory is more plausible, then presented the issue with scrupulous balance, offering three brief arguments for each theory “to help you decide which you consider more likely.”

But this is complicated, specialized science, not Murder, She Wrote. Agencies like the Energy Department, cited by Leonhardt as endorsing the lab leak theory, do have teams of people with relevant lab and scientific expertise. (Leonhardt does not note, however, that the department has “low confidence” in its conclusion—see FAIR.org, 4/7/23.) But surely, if we’re to talk about where current thought lies on the likely origins of SARS-CoV-2, the most pertinent information to give a lay reader is what people who are experts in viruses and disease outbreaks believe. And the majority of experts in those fields lean strongly in the direction of a zoonotic spillover origin.

In a 2024 survey of 168 global experts in epidemiology, virology and associated specialties, the average estimate that the virus emerged from natural zoonosis was 77%; half the participants estimated that the likelihood of a natural origin was 90% or higher. Just 14% of the experts thought a lab accident was more likely than not the origin. (The survey excluded experts from China as being from a country rated “not free” by the US-funded think tank Freedom House.) Yet Leonhardt left out this crucial information.

The evidence Leonhardt presented for zoonotic spillover involves actual epidemiological data, as well as biological samples showing SARS-CoV-2 was present in the Huannan wet market where live animals susceptible to the virus were being sold.

The evidence presented for the lab leak, on the other hand, is the bare minimum to establish it as even being a possibility, with the strongest point not even being in direct favor of the lab leak, and instead just reestablishing that there are still missing pieces to fully prove a zoonotic spillover origin. These are not equivalent bodies of evidence in any sense of the word.

After presenting these carefully crafted options, Leonhardt suggested the logical conclusion:

Do you find both explanations plausible? I do. As I’ve followed this debate over the past few years, I have gone back and forth about which is more likely. Today, I’m close to 50/50. I have heard similar sentiments from some experts.

This is where the crux of the issue lies: These two scenarios may both be plausible, but the relative evidence of their likelihood is not a coin toss. For some reason, however, the Times seems to want to pretend that this is the case.

Why now?

Former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennett (1843 12/24/23) argued that the Times had “lost its way” in part because it was “slow” to report that “Trump might be right that Covid came from a Chinese lab.”

Why has the Times now chosen to revive the lab leak theory? Perhaps it stems in part from recent accusations that, early in the pandemic, corporate media outlets like the Times were overly dismissive of the lab leak possibility. This sentiment was reflected in a post on X (6/4/24) by Times columnist Nicholos Kristof after Chan’s article was published: “In retrospect, many of us in the journalistic and public health worlds were too dismissive of that possibility when she and others were making the argument in 2020.”

This claim of early “lab leak skepticism” has been brought up as evidence of the Times’ supposed left-wing bias, a false claim publisher A.G. Sulzberger is nevertheless at pains to dispel (FAIR.org, 4/24/24).

It’s hard to deny that the Times‘ Covid coverage has shown a strong animus against China, which has played out in absurd op-eds and news stories like “Has China Done Too Well Against Covid-19?” (1/24/20) and “China’s ‘Zero Covid’ Bind: No Easy Way Out Despite the Cost” (9/7/22). (See FAIR.org, 1/29/21, 9/17/21, 9/9/22.)

Whatever its motive, the paper’s decision to publish an argument for the lab leak theory on the day of Dr. Fauci’s congressional subcommittee testimony—without any contrary op-ed to balance it—was clearly intended to influence the public debate.

The responsibility of the press corps on the issue of Covid origins is to help readers understand in which direction the current scientific evidence points. Instead, it misinformed on the science, validating Republican attempts to turn the serious question of the source of a devastating pandemic into a political football.

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

‘It’s Time to Take Medicare Advantage Off the Market’CounterSpin interview with David Himmelstein on privatized Medicare

FAIR - July 2, 2024 - 1:44pm

 

Janine Jackson interviewed professor and Physicians for a National Health Program co-founder David Himmelstein about the problems with Medicare Advantage for the June 28, 2024 episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

https://media.blubrry.com/counterspin/content.blubrry.com/counterspin/CounterSpin240628Himmelstein.mp3

 

Common Dreams (6/10/24)

Janine Jackson: For decades, people in this country have been suffering and dying due to the cost of healthcare, while public majorities have been saying they want a different system. For decades, US corporations and their political and media megaphones have been telling us that, yes, things as they are are difficult, but a more humane universal healthcare policy is just not possible, not because the policies that would allow doctors to provide the care they deem appropriate, and people to receive that care without going bankrupt, aren’t logistically doable—they are, after all, done in other countries—but because they are not, as the New York Times has repeatedly phrased it, “politically viable.”

So while you’ve likely heard about people choosing between rent and healthcare, and about people rationing their medications, and you have never once heard of people marching in the street chanting, “What do we want? Managed competition! When do we want it? Now!”—here we still are.

The latest gambit is Medicare Advantage, the private sector “alternative” to traditional Medicare in which currently more than half of the eligible Medicare population is enrolled. We were told it would encourage insurers to provide better care at lower cost. New research says, nope, that’s not what’s happening.

Here to help us understand is David Himmelstein, co-author of the new analysis, “Less Care at Higher Cost: The Medicare Advantage Paradox,” appearing in JAMA Internal Medicine. He teaches at Hunter College and Harvard Medical School. He’s a researcher at Public Citizen and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program. He joins us now by phone from upstate New York. Welcome to CounterSpin, David Himmelstein.

David Himmelstein: Thanks for having me.

JJ: So the concept of Medicare Advantage is that insurance companies get a lump sum for each patient, the amount of which depends on the person’s health, and it was presented as a way to bring down out-of-pocket costs while also still providing better care. The analysis that you have just carried out showed that that is not at all what’s happening. Talk us through what you found.

David Himmelstein: “The private insurance companies have ripped off taxpayers to the tune of more than half a trillion dollars.”

DH: What we found is that the taxpayers are overpaying these Medicare Advantage private plans by tens of billions of dollars each year. In fact, $82 billion last year alone, and $612 billion since 2007. That’s overpayments compared to what it would have cost to cover those same people in the old public Medicare program. So, in effect, the private insurance companies have ripped off taxpayers to the tune of more than half a trillion dollars, and most of that goes to either their bottom line, or to the paperwork that they carry out to realize those profits. In fact, 97% of the total overpayment stayed with the insurance companies. Only 3% went to the perks that they offer to entice people to enroll in their plans rather than staying in traditional Medicare.

JJ: When you say overpayments, what are the mechanisms of that? How is that working?

DH: The plans really trick the system in a couple of ways. One is that they seek out healthy, low-cost enrollees who are going to be inexpensive for them to cover. So they get the lump sum payment from the Medicare program, but the insurance company doesn’t actually need to pay for care. In fact, for 19% of Medicare enrollees, they cost nothing in the course of a year. So when an insurance company enrolls them, they get something like $10,000 or $12,000 a year, and they pay for no care at all. So that’s one thing—enroll healthy and inexpensive people and avoid sick ones.

The second is: make your benefits tailored to be unpleasant and unsustainable for people who are sick and expensive. So don’t approve rehab care, which Medicare traditional pays for, but the Medicare Advantage plans usually don’t. So if someone needs that rehab care, they’re really pushed to choose to go back to traditional Medicare.

And the third way is by inflating the amount Medicare pays them by making the people who enroll in the Medicare Advantage plans and those private plans look sicker on paper, and that increases how much Medicare pays, but in many cases doesn’t actually increase what it costs the plans to cover them. So they’ve leaned heavily on doctors to, say, add as many diagnoses as you can, even if they don’t cost anything, or don’t imply the need for more care. And, over the years, they’ve also taken to sending nurses into enrollees’ homes, not to help them out, but to try and discover additional diagnoses that could up the payment.

So they avoid the sick, they try and evict the sick once they are sick, and they make people look sicker in order to increase the payment they get from Medicare. And those things together result in what the official Medicare Payment Advisory Commission—so this is the non-partisan commission that advises Congress—they said it costs 22% more to cover a patient under Medicare Advantage than it would’ve cost to cover them under traditional Medicare. And as I said, that’s an $83 billion difference last year alone.

JJ: And you have mentioned taxpayers, and I just want to underscore it, the harms here are not just to the enrollees who are having inflated diagnoses, and then not necessarily getting the care they need, but the harms are even to those who are not enrolled in these plans, right?

DH: Absolutely. I mean, as taxpayers, we’re all paying for it. And the tragedy is, Medicare needs improvement. Medicare enrollees are saddled with high copayments and deductibles, and a lot of services that aren’t adequately covered, like dental care and eyeglasses. And if we took that $600-plus billion that’s been really thrown away in overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans, we could upgrade Medicare coverage for all enrollees, and the taxpayers wouldn’t be paying any more. But at this point, the taxpayers are being ripped off, and Medicare enrollees aren’t getting what they need.

JJ: Let me just extend you from there. What are the recommendations that come out of this research? What can people be calling for?

DH: We’re 40 years into this experiment with privatizing Medicare, the Medicare Advantage program. And what we conclude in this analysis is, it’s time to end that experiment. If we had a 40-year failing experiment on any drug, we’d say, take that drug off the market. It’s time to take Medicare Advantage off the market, and to use the money that we’ve been overpaying them to upgrade coverage for Medicare recipients overall.

We need to go further than that. We need a single-payer, Medicare for All, upgraded system for all Americans. And, frankly, we could save huge amounts on the insurance middlemen, not just in Medicare, but in other sectors as well. I mean, for people with private insurance, they’re being ripped off for the overhead of the private insurers and the vast profits they make. So the immediate call is, let’s abolish Medicare Advantage and upgrade Medicare for seniors. But the longer term call is, let’s move everybody into an upgraded Medicare for All program.

JJ: Just, finally, the phrase “not politically viable” doesn’t leave my head, because it’s corporate news media telling the people to cut our hopes and needs to fit the desires of wealthy companies, which of course is not how some of us define politics. But time and again, people show that they are not too dumb to understand how a single-payer system would work, despite years of misinformation around it. People still, in majorities, call for it. And I guess I wish media would listen to people about solutions, and not just catalog the harms of the current system. Do you have any thoughts about what journalism and journalists could do to move us forward on this?

DH: Well, they need to go beyond the talking points that are supplied by the insurance industry and the rest of the people making huge profits off of our healthcare system–the drug companies, and many of the hospitals, and, frankly, the higher-paid doctors as well. So we need to have a rational system, and the news media needs to actually portray the—I would call them crimes that are being perpetrated on the American people, and not say, “we can’t do better;” we know we can do better–and actually have the in-depth reporting on why it is that a reform could and would work in this country.

JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with David Himmelstein, and you can access the analysis we’ve been talking about through JAMANetwork.com. David Himmelstein, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DH: Thanks again for having me.

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