Friday, April 26, 2019

People moralize the future more than the past partly to guide their choices & actions, such as by increasing their motivation to restrain selfish impulses & build long-term cooperative relationships with others

Moral self-judgment is stronger for future than past actions. Hallgeir Sjåstad, Roy F. Baumeister. Motivation and Emotion, Apr 26 2019.

Abstract: When, if ever, would a person want to be held responsible for his or her choices? Across four studies (N = 915), people favored more extreme rewards and punishments for their future than their past actions. This included thinking that they should receive more blame and punishment for future misdeeds than for past ones, and more credit and reward for future good deeds than for past ones. The tendency to moralize the future more than the past was mediated by anticipating (one’s own) emotional reactions and concern about one’s reputation, which was stronger in the future as well. The findings fit the pragmatic view that people moralize the future partly to guide their choices and actions, such as by increasing their motivation to restrain selfish impulses and build long-term cooperative relationships with others. People typically believe that the future is open and changeable, while the past is not. We conclude that the psychology of moral accountability has a strong future component.

Keywords: Morality Self-judgment Prospection Emotion Reputation

Aaron Maté on the Russiagate and the Mueller probe

New Studies Show Pundits Are Wrong About Russian Social-Media Involvement in US Politics. Aaron Maté. The Nation, Dec 28 2018,

Far from being a sophisticated propaganda campaign, it was small, amateurish, and mostly unrelated to the 2016 election.

Excerpts with no links:

The release of two Senate-commissioned reports has sparked a new round of panic about Russia manipulating a vulnerable American public on social media. Headlines warn that Russian trolls have tried to suppress the African-American vote, promote Green Party candidate Jill Stein, recruit “assets,” and “sow discord” or “hack the 2016 election” via sex-toy ads and Pokémon Go. “The studies,” writes David Ignatius of The Washington Post, “describe a sophisticated, multilevel Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder,” demonstrating that the Russians, “thanks to the Internet…seem to be perfecting these dark arts.” According to Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times, “it looks increasingly as though” Russian disinformation “changed the direction of American history” in the narrowly decided 2016 election, when “Russian trolling easily could have made the difference.”

The reports, from the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project and the firm New Knowledge, do provide the most thorough look at Russian social-media activity to date. With an abundance of data, charts, graphs, and tables, coupled with extensive qualitative analysis, the authors scrutinize the output of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) the Russian clickbait firm indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February 2018. On every significant metric, it is difficult to square the data with the dramatic conclusions that have been drawn.

• 2016 Election Content: The most glaring data point is how minimally Russian social-media activity pertained to the 2016 campaign. The New Knowledge report acknowledges that evaluating IRA content “purely based on whether it definitively swung the election is too narrow a focus,” as the “explicitly political content was a small percentage.” To be exact, just “11% of the total content” attributed to the IRA and 33 percent of user engagement with it “was related to the election.” The IRA’s posts “were minimally about the candidates,” with “roughly 6% of tweets, 18% of Instagram posts, and 7% of Facebook posts” having “mentioned Trump or Clinton by name.”

• Scale: The researchers claim that “the scale of [the Russian] operation was unprecedented,” but they base that conclusion on dubious figures. They repeat the widespread claim that Russian posts “reached 126 million people on Facebook,” which is in fact a spin on Facebook’s own guess. “Our best estimate,” Facebook’s Colin Stretch testified to Congress in October 2017, “is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of these [IRA] stories at some time during the two year period” between 2015 and 2017. According to Stretch, posts generated by suspected Russian accounts showing up in Facebook’s News Feed amounted to “approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.”

• Spending: Also hurting the case that the Russians reached a large number of Americans is that they spent such a microscopic amount of money to do it. Oxford puts the IRA’s Facebook spending between 2015 and 2017 at just $73,711. As was previously known, about $46,000 was spent on Russian-linked Facebook ads before the 2016 election. That amounts to about 0.05 percent of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined. A recent disclosure by Google that Russian-linked accounts spent $4,700 on platforms in 2016 only underscores how miniscule that spending was. The researchers also claim that the IRA’s “manipulation of American political discourse had a budget that exceeded $25 million USD.” But that number is based on a widely repeated error that mistakes the IRA’s spending on US-related activities for its parent project’s overall global budget, including domestic social-media activity in Russia.

• Sophistication: Another reason to question the operation’s sophistication can be found by simply looking at its offerings. The IRA’s most shared pre-election Facebook post was a cartoon of a gun-wielding Yosemite Sam. Over on Instagram, the best-received image urged users to give it a “Like” if they believe in Jesus. The top IRA post on Facebook before the election to mention Hillary Clinton was a conspiratorial screed about voter fraud. It’s telling that those who are so certain Russian social-media posts affected the 2016 election never cite the posts that they think actually helped achieve that end. The actual content of those posts might explain why.

• Covert or Clickbait Operation? Far from exposing a sophisticated propaganda campaign, the reports provide more evidence that the Russians were actually engaging in clickbait capitalism: targeting unique demographics like African Americans or evangelicals in a bid to attract large audiences for commercial purposes. Reporters who have profiled the IRA have commonly described it as “a social media marketing campaign.” Mueller’s indictment of the IRA disclosed that it sold “promotions and advertisements” on its pages that generally sold in the $25-$50 range. “This strategy,” Oxford observes, “is not an invention for politics and foreign intrigue, it is consistent with techniques used in digital marketing.” New Knowledge notes that the IRA even sold merchandise that “perhaps provided the IRA with a source of revenue,” hawking goods such as T-shirts, “LGBT-positive sex toys and many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes.”

• “Asset Development”: Lest one wonder how promoting sex toys might factor into a sophisticated influence campaign, the New Knowledge report claims that exploiting “sexual behavior” was a key component of the IRA’s “expansive” “human asset recruitment strategy” in the United States. “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability,” the report explains, “is a timeless espionage practice.” The first example of this timeless espionage practice is of an ad featuring Jesus consoling a dejected young man by telling him: “Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together.” It is unknown if this particular tactic brought any assets into the fold. But New Knowledge reports that there was “some success with several of these human-activation attempts.” That is correct: The IRA’s online trolls apparently succeeded in sparking protests in 2016, like several in Florida where “it’s unclear if anyone attended”; “no people showed up to at least one,” and “ragtag groups” showed up at others, including one where video footage captured a crowd of eight people. The most successful effort appears to have been in Houston, where Russian trolls allegedly organized dueling rallies pitting a dozen white supremacists against several dozen counter-protesters outside an Islamic center.   

Based on all of this data, we can draw this picture of Russian social-media activity: It was mostly unrelated to the 2016 election; microscopic in reach, engagement, and spending; and juvenile or absurd in its content. This leads to the inescapable conclusion, as the New Knowledge study acknowledges, that “the operation’s focus on elections was merely a small subset” of its activity. They qualify that “accurate” narrative by saying it “misses nuance and deserves more contextualization.” Alternatively, perhaps it deserves some minimal reflection that a juvenile social-media operation with such a small focus on elections is being widely portrayed as a seismic threat that may well have decided the 2016 contest.

Doing so leads us to conclusions that have nothing to do with Russian social-media activity, nor with the voters supposedly influenced by it. Take the widespread speculation that Russian social-media posts may have suppressed the black vote. That a Russian troll farm sought to deceive black audiences and other targeted demographics on social media is certainly contemptible. But in criticizing that effort there’s no reason to assume it was successful—and yet that’s exactly what the pundits did. “When you consider the narrow margins by which [Donald Trump] won [Michigan and Wisconsin], and poor minority turnout there, these Russian voter suppression efforts may have been decisive,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod commented. “Black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election,” The New York Times conspicuously notes, “but it is impossible to determine whether that was the result of the Russian campaign.”

That it is even considered possible that the Russian campaign impacted the black vote displays a rather stunning paternalism and condescension. Would Axelrod, Times reporters, or any of the others floating a similar scenario accept a suggestion that their own votes might be susceptible to silly social-media posts mostly unrelated to the election? If not, what does that tell us about their attitudes toward the people that they presume could be so vulnerable?

Entertaining the possibility that Russian social-media posts impacted the election outcome requires more than just a contemptuous view of average voters. It also requires the abandonment of elementary standards of logic, probability, and arithmetic. We now have corroboration of this judgment from an unlikely source. Just days after the New Knowledge report was released, The New York Times reported that the company had carried out “a secret experiment” in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. According to an internal document, New Knowledge used “many of the [Russian] tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 elections,” going so far as to stage an “elaborate ‘false flag’ operation” that promoted the idea that the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was backed by Russian bots. The fallout from the operation has led Facebook to suspend the accounts of five people, including New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan.

The Times discloses that the project had a budget of $100,000, but adds that it “was likely too small to have a significant effect on the race.” A Democratic operative concurs, telling the Times that “it was impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact.”

The Alabama Senate race cost $51 million. If it was impossible for a $100,000 New Knowledge operation to affect a 2017 state election, then how could a comparable—perhaps even less expensive—Russian operation possibly impact a $2.4 billion US presidential election in 2016?

On top of straining credulity, fixating on barely detectable and trivial social-media content also downplays myriad serious issues. As the journalist Ari Berman has tirelessly pointed out, the 2016 election was “the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the [Voting Rights Act],” one that was conducted amid “the greatest rollback of voting rights since the act was passed” in 1965. Rather than ruminating over whether they were duped by Russian clickbait, reporters who have actually spoken to black Midwest voters have found that political disillusionment amid stagnant wages, high inequality, and pervasive police brutality led many to stay home.

And that leads us to perhaps a key reason why elites in particular are so fixated on the purported threat of Russian meddling: It deflects attention from their own failures, and the failings of the system that grants them status as elites. During the campaign, corporate media outlets handed Donald Trump billions of dollars worth of air time because, in the words of the now ousted CBS exec Les Moonves: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Not wanting to interrupt the fun, these outlets have every incentive to breathlessly cover Russiagate and amplify comparisons of stolen Democratic Party e-mails and Russian social-media posts to Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Kristallnacht, and “cruise missiles.”

Having lost the presidential election to a reality TV host, the Democratic Party leadership is arguably the most incentivized to capitalize on the Russia panic. They continue to oblige. Like clockwork, former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook seized on the new Senate studies to warn that “Russian operatives will try to divide Democrats again in the 2020 primary, making activists unwitting accomplices.” By “unwitting accomplices,” Mook is presumably referring to the progressive Democrats who have protested the DNC leadership’s collusion with the Clinton campaign and bias against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Mook is following a now familiar Democratic playbook: blaming Russia for the consequences of the party elite’s own actions. When an uproar arose over Trump campaign data firm Cambridge Analytica in early 2018, Hillary Clinton was quoted posing what she dubbed the “real question”: “How did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin, or Michigan, or Pennsylvania?”

In fact, the Russians spent a grand total of $3,102 in these three states, with the majority of that paltry sum not even during the general election but during the primaries, and the majority of the ads were not even about candidates but about social issues. The total number of times ads were targeted at Wisconsin (54), Michigan (36), Pennsylvania (25) combined is less than the 152 times that ads were targeted at the blue state of New York. Wisconsin and Michigan also happen to be two states that Clinton infamously, and perilously, avoided visiting in the campaign’s final months.

The utility of Russia-baiting goes far beyond absolving elites of responsibility for their own failures. Hacked documents have recently revealed that a UK-government charity has waged a global propaganda operation in the name of “countering Russian disinformation.” The project, known as the Integrity Initiative, is run by military intelligence officials with funding from the British Foreign Office and other government sources, including the US State Department and NATO. It works closely with “clusters” of sympathetic journalists and academics across the West, and has already been outed for waging a social-media campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The group’s Twitter account promoted articles that painted Corbyn as a “useful idiot” in support of “the Kremlin cause”; criticized his communications director, Seumas Milne, for his alleged “work with the Kremlin agenda”; and said, “It’s time for the Corbyn left to confront its Putin problem.”

The Corbyn camp is far from the only progressive force to be targeted with this smear tactic. That it is revealed to be part of a Western government–backed operation is yet another reason to consider the fixation with Russian social-media activity in a new light. There is no indication that the disinformation spread by employees of a St. Petersburg troll farm has had a discernible impact on the US electorate. The barrage of claims to the contrary is but one element of an infinitely larger chorus from failed political elites, sketchy private firms, shadowy intelligence officials, and credulous media outlets that inculcates the Western public with fears of a Kremlin “sowing discord.” Given how divorced the prevailing alarm is from the actual facts—and the influence of those fueling it—we might ask ourselves whose disinformation is most worthy of concern.

Aaron Maté is a host/producer for The Real News.

Check also The Mueller Report Indicts the Trump-Russia Conspiracy Theory: The real Russiagate scandal is the damage it has to our democratic system and media. Aaron Maté. The Nation, Apr 26 2019,

For more than two years, leading US political and media voices promoted a narrative that Donald Trump conspired with or was compromised by the Kremlin, and that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would prove it. In the process, they overlooked countervailing evidence and diverted anti-Trump energies into fervent speculation and prolonged anticipation. So long as Mueller was on the case, it was possible to believe that “The Walls Are Closing In” on the traitor/puppet/asset in the White House.

The long-awaited completion of Mueller’s probe, and the release of his redacted report, reveals this narrative—and the expectations it fueled—to be unfounded. No American was indicted for conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Mueller’s report does lay out extensive evidence that Trump sought to impede the investigation, but he declined to issue a verdict on obstruction. By contrast, the report shows no evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government’s alleged effort to defeat Hillary Clinton, and renders this conclusion: “Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the [Trump] Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.” As a result, Mueller’s report provides the reverse of what Russiagate promoters led their audiences to expect: Rather than detailing a sinister collusion plot with Russia, it presents what amounts to an extended indictment of the conspiracy theory itself.

1. Russiagate Without Russia

The most fundamental element of a conspiracy is contact between the two sides doing the conspiring. Hence, on the eve of the report’s release, The New York Times noted that among the “outstanding questions” that Mueller would answer were the nature of “contacts between Kremlin intermediaries and the Trump campaign.”

Mueller’s report does answer that question: There were effectively no “Kremlin intermediaries.” The report contains no evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign spoke to a Kremlin representative during the election outside of conversations with the Russian ambassador and a press-office assistant, both of which were ruled out as elements of a conspiracy (more on them later).

It should be no surprise then to learn, from Mueller, that when “Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads into the new administration” after Trump’s election victory, they did not know who to call. These powerful Russians, Mueller noted, “appeared not to have preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with senior officials around the President-Elect.” If top Russians did not have “preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with” the people that they supposedly conspired with, perhaps that is because they did not actually conspire.

To borrow a phrase from Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen, when it comes to the core question of contacts between Trump and the Russian government, we are left with a “Russiagate without Russia.” Instead we have a series of interactions where Trump associates speak with Russian nationals, people with ties to Russian nationals, or people who claim to have ties to the Russian government. But none of these “links,” “ties,” or associations ever entail a single member of the Trump campaign interacting with a Kremlin intermediary. They have nonetheless fueled a dogged media effort to track every known instance where someone in the Trump orbit interacted with “the Russians,” or someone who can be linked to them. There is nothing illegal or inherently suspect about speaking to a Russian national—but there is something xenophobic about implying so.

2. Russiagate’s Predicate Led Nowhere

The most glaring absence of a Kremlin intermediary comes in the case that ostensibly prompted the entire Trump-Russia investigation. During an April 2016 meeting in Rome, a London-based professor named Joseph Mifsud reportedly informed Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos that “the Russians” had obtained “thousands of emails” containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. That information made its way to the FBI, which used it as a pretext to open the “Crossfire Hurricane” probe on July 31, 2016. Papadopoulos was later indicted for lying to FBI agents about the timing of his contacts with Mifsud. The case stoked speculation that Papadopoulos acted as an intermediary between Trump and Russia.

But Papadopoulos played no such role. And while the Mueller report says Papadopoulos “understood Mifsud to have substantial connections to high-level Russian government officials,” it never asserts that Mifsud actually had those connections. Since Mifsud’s suspected Russian connections were the purported predicate for the FBI’s initial Trump-Russia investigation, that is a conspicuous non-call. Another is the revelation from Mueller that Mifsud made false statements to FBI investigators when they interviewed him in February 2017—but yet, unlike Papadopoulos, Mifsud was not indicted. What is not a mystery is whether the supposed spark for the Russia collusion probe revealed collusion: It did not.

3. Sergey Kislyak Had “Brief and Non-Substantive” Interactions With the Trump Camp

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s conversations with Trump campaign officials and associates during and after the 2016 election were the focus of intense controversy and speculation, leading to the recusal of Jeff Sessions, then attorney general, and to the indictment of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

After an exhaustive review, Mueller concluded that Kislyak’s interactions with Trump campaign officials at public events “were brief, public, and non-substantive.” As for Kislyak’s much–ballyhooed meeting which Sessions in September 2016, Mueller saw no reason to dispute that it “included any more than a passing mention of the presidential campaign.” When Kislyak spoke with other Trump aides after the August 2016 Republican National Convention, Mueller “did not identify evidence in those interactions of coordination between the Campaign and the Russian government.”

The same goes for Kislyak’s post-election conversations with Flynn. Mueller indicted Flynn for making “false statements and omissions” in an interview with the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak during the transition in December 2016. The prevailing supposition was that Flynn lied in order to hide from the FBI an election-related payoff or “quid pro quo” with the Kremlin. The report punctures that thesis by reaffirming the facts in Flynn’s indictment: What Flynn hid from agents was that he had “called Kislyak to request Russian restraint” in response to sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration, and that Kislyak had agreed. Mueller ruled out the possibility that Flynn could have implicated Trump in anything criminal by noting the absence of evidence that Flynn “possessed information damaging to the President that would give the President a personal incentive to end the FBI’s inquiry into Flynn’s conduct.”

4. Trump Tower Moscow Had No Help From Moscow…

The November 2018 indictment of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was widely seen as damning, possibly impeachment-worthy, for Trump. Cohen admitted to giving false written answers to Congress in a bid to downplay Trump’s personal knowledge of his company’s failed effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. To proponents of the collusion theory, Cohen’s admitted lies were proof that “Trump is compromised by Russia,” “full stop.”

But the Mueller report does not show any such compromise, and, in fact, shows there to be no Trump-Kremlin relationship. Cohen, the report notes, “requested [Kremlin] assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the project and with financing.” The request was evidently rejected. Elena Poliakova, the personal assistant to Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, spoke with Cohen by phone after he emailed her office for help. After their 20-minute call, the report says, “Cohen could not recall any direct follow-up from Poliakova or from any other representative of the Russian government, nor did the [Special Counsel’s] Office identify any evidence of direct follow-up.”

5. …and Trump Didn’t Ask Cohen to Lie About It

The Mueller report not only dispels the notion that Trump had secret dealings with the Kremlin over Trump Tower Moscow; it also rejects a related impeachment-level “bombshell.” In January, Buzzfeed News reported that Mueller had evidence that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow project. But according to Mueller, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony,” and that Cohen himself testified “that he and the President did not explicitly discuss whether Cohen’s testimony about the Trump Tower Moscow project would be or was false.” In a de-facto retraction, Buzzfeed updated its story with an acknowledgement of Mueller’s conclusion.

6. The Trump Tower Meeting Really Was Just a “Waste of Time”

The June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower was widely dubbed the “Smoking Gun.” An email chain showed that Donald Trump Jr. welcomed an offer to accept compromising information about Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” But the pitch did not come from the meeting’s Russian participants, but instead from Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist acting on their behalf. Goldstone said that he invented “publicist puff” to secure the meeting, because in reality, as he told NPR, “I had no idea what I was talking about.”

Mueller noted that Trump Jr’s response “showed that the Campaign anticipated receiving information from Russia that could assist candidate Trump’s electoral prospects, but the Russian lawyer’s presentation did not provide such information [emphasis mine].” The report further recounts that during the meeting Jared Kushner texted then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort that it was a “waste of time,” and requested that his assistants “call him to give him an excuse to leave.” Accordingly, when “Veselnitskaya made additional efforts to follow up on the meeting,” after the election, “the Trump Transition Team did not engage.”

7. Manafort Did Not Share Polling Data to Meddle in the US Election

In January, Mueller accused Manafort of lying to investigators about several matters, including sharing Trump polling data and discussing a Ukraine peace plan with his Ukrainian-Russian colleague, Konstantin Kilimnik, during the 2016 campaign. According to Mueller, the FBI “assesses” that Kilimnik has unspecified “ties to Russian intelligence.” To collusion proponents, the revelation was dubbed “the closest we’ve seen yet to real, live, actual collusion” and even the “Russian collusion smoking gun.”

Mueller, of course, reached a different conclusion: He “did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election,” and moreover, “did not establish that Manafort otherwise coordinated with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts.” Mueller noted that he “could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing” the polling data, but also acknowledged (and bolstered) the explanation of his star witness, Rick Gates, that Manafort was motivated by proving his financial value to former and future clients.

Mueller also gave us new reasons to doubt the assertions that Kilimnik himself is a Russian intelligence asset or spy. First, Mueller did not join media pundits in asserting such about Kilimnik. Second, to support his vague contention that Kilimnik has, according to the FBI, “ties to Russian intelligence,” Mueller offered up a list of “pieces of the Office’s Evidence” that contains no direct evidence. For his part, Kilimnik has repeatedly stated that he has no such ties, and recently told The Washington Post that Mueller never attempted to interview him.

8. The Steele Dossier Was Fiction

The Steele dossier—a collection of Democratic National Committee-funded opposition research alleging a high-level Trump-Russia criminal relationship—played a critical role in the Russiagate saga. The FBI relied on it for leads and evidentiary material in its investigation of the Trump campaign ties to Russia, and prominent politicians, pundits, and media outlets promoted it as credible.

The Mueller report, The New York Times noted last week, has “underscored what had grown clearer for months… some of the most sensational claims in the dossier appeared to be false, and others were impossible to prove.” Steele reported that low-level Trump aide Carter Page was offered a 19 percent stake in the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft if he could get Trump to lift Western sanctions. In October 2016 the FBI, citing the Steele dossier, told the FISA court that it “believes that [Russia’s] efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” the Trump campaign. The Mueller report though could “not establish that Page coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.”

The Steele dossier claimed that Michael Cohen visited Prague to meet Russian agents in the summer of 2016. In April 2018, McClatchy reported to much fanfare that Mueller’s team has “has evidence” that placed Cohen in Prague during the period in question. Cohen later denied the claim under oath, and Mueller agreed, noting that Cohen “never traveled to Prague.”

After reports emerged in August 2016 that the Trump campaign had rejected an amendment to the Republican National Committee platform that called for arming Ukraine, Steele claimed that it was the result of a quid pro quo. The Mueller report “did not establish that” the rejection of the Ukraine amendment was “undertaken at the behest of candidate Trump or Russia.”

9. The Trump Campaign Had No Secret Channel to WikiLeaks

In January, veteran Republican operative and conspiracy theorist Roger Stone caused a stir when he was indicted for lying to Congress about his efforts to make contact with WikiLeaks. But Mueller’s indictment actually showed that Stone had no communications with WikiLeaks before the election and no privileged information about its releases. Most significantly, it revealed that Trump officials were trying to learn about the WikiLeaks releases through Stone—a fact that underscored that the Trump campaign neither worked with WikiLeaks nor had advance knowledge of its email dumps.

Mueller’s final report does nothing to alter that picture. Its sections on Stone are heavily redacted, owing to Stone’s pending trial. But they do make clear that Mueller conducted an extensive search to establish a tie between WikiLeaks, the Trump campaign, and Stone—and came up empty. New reporting from The Washington Post underscores just how far, and how farcically, their efforts went. The Mueller team devoted time and energy to determine whether far-right conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, best known for promoting the false claim that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, served as a link between Stone and WikiLeaks. Mueller’s prosecutors “spent weeks coaxing, cajoling and admonishing the conspiracy theorist, as they pressed him to stick to facts and not reconstruct stories,” the Post reports. “At times, they had debated the nature of memory itself.” It is unsurprising that this led Mueller’s prosecutors to ultimately declare, according to Corsi’s attorney, “We can’t use any of this.”

10. There Was No Cover-Up

The release of Mueller report does not just dispel the conspiracy theories that have engulfed political and media circles for two years; it puts to rest the prevailing one of recent weeks that Attorney General William Barr engaged in a cover-up. According to the dominant narrative, Barr was somehow concealing Mueller’s damning evidence, and Mueller, even more improbably, was staying silent.

One could argue that Barr’s summary downplays the obstruction findings, though it accurately relays that Mueller’s report does “not exonerate” Trump. It was Mueller’s decision to leave the verdict on obstruction to Barr and make clear that if Congress disagrees, it has the power to indict Trump on its own. Mueller’s office assisted with Barr’s redactions, which proved to be, as Barr had pledged, extremely limited. Despite containing numerous embarrassing details about Trump, no executive privilege was invoked to censor the report’s contents.

In the end, Mueller’s report shows that the Trump-Russia collusion narrative embraced and evangelized by the US political and media establishment to be a work of fiction. The American public was presented with a far different picture because leading pundits, outlets, and politicians ignored the countervailing facts and promoted maximalist interpretations of the remaining ones. Anonymous officials also leaked explosive yet uncorroborated claims, leaving behind many stories that were subsequently discredited, retracted, or remain unconfirmed to this day.

It is too early to assess the damage that influential Russiagate promoters have done to their own reputations; to public confidence in our democratic system and media; and to the prospects of defeating Trump, who always stood to benefit if the all-consuming conspiracy theory ultimately collapsed. With Mueller’s report, the collapse has now arrived, and the scale of the wreckage may prove to be the ultimate Russiagate scandal.

From 2018... Self-generated thought: The medial temporal lobe is a key site of thought-generation; the posterior cingulate cortex & inferior parietal lobule have little say

From 2018: Neural origins of self-generated thought: Insights from intracranial electrical stimulation and recordings in humans. Kieran C.R. Fox. Chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Dreaming, May 2018, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190464745.001.0001

Abstract: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to narrow down the neural correlates of self-generated forms of thought, with current evidence pointing toward central roles for the default, frontoparietal, and visual networks. Recent work has linked the arising of thoughts more specifically to default network activity, but the limited temporal resolution of fMRI has precluded more detailed conclusions about where in the brain self-created mental content is generated and how this is achieved. Here I argue that the unparalleled spatiotemporal resolution of intracranial electrophysiology (iEEG) in human epilepsy patients can begin to provide answers to questions about the specific neural origins of self-generated thought. I review the extensive body of literature from iEEG studies over the past few decades and show that many studies involving passive recording or direct electrical stimulation throughout the brain all point to the medial temporal lobe as a key site of thought-generation. At the same time, null effects from other brain regions suggest that various other default network hubs, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and inferior parietal lobule, might have only a marginal role (if any) in the self-generation or initiation of mental content like dreams, visual imagery, memories, and prospective simulations. Ultimately, combining a variety of neuroscientific methods that compensate for each other's weaknesses and complement each other's strengths may prove to be the most effective way to understand the brain's remarkable ability to decouple from the immediate environment and generate its own experiences.

An enormous amount of scientific interest has recently begun to focus on spontaneous and self-generated forms of thought (Andrews-Hanna, Smallwood, & Spreng, 2014; Christoff, 2012; Christoff, Irving, Fox, Spreng, & Andrews-Hanna, 2016; Seli, Risko, Smilek, & Schacter, 2016). As experience sampling studies (see Stawarczyk, this volume) and questionnaires develop an understanding of the associated subjective content (Delamillieure et al., 2010; Diaz et al., 2013; Fox, Nijeboer, Solomonova, Domhoff, & Christoff, 2013; Fox, Thompson, Andrews-Hanna, & Christoff, 2014; Stawarczyk, 2017; Stawarczyk, Majerus, Maj, Van der Linden, & D'Argembeau, 2011), functional neuroimaging research over the past two decades has delineated a rough but increasingly refined picture of general brain recruitment associated with these self-generated forms of thought (Fox, Spreng, Ellamil, Andrews-Hanna, & Christoff, 2015). Throughout this chapter, by ‘selfgenerated thought’ I will simply mean mental content that is relatively independent of and unrelated to the immediate sensory environment (Andrews-Hanna et al., 2014; Fox, Andrews-Hanna, & Christoff, 2016); taken broadly, self-generated thought includes mental processes such as stimulus-independent thought (McGuire, Paulesu, Frackowiak, & Frith, 1996), task-unrelated thought (Dumontheil, Gilbert, Frith, & Burgess, 2010), spontaneous thought (Spiers & Maguire, 2006), mind-wandering (Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, & Schooler, 2009), creative thinking and insight (Ellamil, Dobson, Beeman, & Christoff, 2012), and dreaming (Fox et al., 2013).

Now that a general picture of the subjective content and neural correlates of selfgenerated thought is emerging, deeper and more subtle questions are being posed: for instance, whether specific neural correlates are associated with specific self-generated content (Gorgolewski et al., 2014; Tusche, Smallwood, Bernhardt, & Singer, 2014); whether differences in brain morphology are associated with individual tendencies toward certain types of self-generated thinking (Bernhardt et al., 2014; Golchert et al., 2017); what the relationship of self-generated thought is to various psychiatric and neurodegenerative conditions (Christoff et al., 2016); and whether specific neural origin sites of self-generated thought can be identified (Fox et al., 2016). It is this final question that I will focus on throughout this chapter: what brain structures are the primary initiators, drivers, and creators when the brain decouples from its sensory environment and self-generates its own experiences? Is this question even valid? Can there be a specific answer?

First, I will very briefly review what is known about the broad neural correlates of self -generated thought from functional neuroimaging investigations. These studies point to the primacy of the default network in initiating self-generated thought, but cannot seem to go beyond this level of specificity and offer a more detailed answer due to their inherently poor temporal resolution. Next, I will delve into the relatively smaller (but fast-growing) human intracranial electrophysiology literature to explore the neural origins of selfgenerated thought in more detail. Starting with the broad set of regions identified by functional neuroimaging as being involved in self-generating thought, I synthesize data from human electrophysiology to hone in on the most likely origin/initiation sites and to tentatively exclude other areas from a primary regenerative role.

Across different cultures, women’s preferences generally favor the circumcised penis for sexual activity, hygiene, and lower risk of infection

Morris BJ, Hankins CA, Lumbers ER, et al. Sex and Male Circumcision: Women’s Preferences Across Different Cultures and Countries: A Systematic Review. Sex Med 2019;XX:XXX–XXX.

Introduction: Women’s choices for a sexual partner are influenced by numerous personal, cultural, social, political and religious factors, and may also include aspects of penile anatomy such as male circumcision (MC) status.

Aim: To perform a systematic review examining (i) whether MC status influences women’s preference for sexual activity and the reasons for this, and (ii) whether women prefer MC for their sons.

Methods: PRISMA-compliant searches were conducted of PubMed, Google Scholar, Embase, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Articles that met the inclusion criteria were rated for quality using the SIGN system.

Results: Database searches identified 29 publications with original data for inclusion, including 22 for aim (i) and 4 of these and 7 others pertaining to aim (ii). In the overwhelming majority of studies, women expressed a preference for the circumcised penis. The main reasons given for this preference were better appearance, better hygiene, reduced risk of infection, and enhanced sexual activity, including vaginal intercourse, manual stimulation, and fellatio. In studies that assessed mothers’ preference for MC of sons, health, disease prevention, and hygiene were cited as major reasons for this preference. Cultural differences in preference were evident among some of the studies examined. Nevertheless, a preference for a circumcised penis was seen in most populations regardless of the frequency of MC in the study setting.

Conclusion: Women’s preferences generally favor the circumcised penis for sexual activity, hygiene, and lower risk of infection. The findings add to the already well-established health benefits favoring MC and provide important sociosexual information on an issue of widespread interest.


Precopulatory mate choices by females based on male genital traits occur in diverse species.1 In early naked Homo sapiens, upright body posture and protruding nonretractile male genitalia made for a particularly conspicuous penis, even when flaccid. This has led evolutionary biologists to suggest that premating sexual selection resulted in evolution of the comparatively large penis of humans relative to other primates. A study of heterosexual women of various races found an association of penis size with attractiveness.2 Tallness and greater shoulder-to-hip ratio also are associated with male attractiveness. The authors concluded that female mate choice could have driven the evolution of larger penises in humans. However, modifications to penis size also could have been driven by changes in the female reproductive tract associated with bipedal locomotion and the large head size of the human infant.3 Although in recent millennia the adoption of clothing covering the genitals has precluded women’s perception of a potential partner’s penile features at first encounter, those would likely become evident once intimacy occurs.

Another feature of the human penis is male circumcision (MC) status. MC is an ancient practice3, 4 that may have emerged in Africa and accompanied the radiation of H sapiens out of that continent3, 5 approximately 220,000 years ago.6 For example, evidence from portable art and rock art suggests that MC was practiced in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic (38000–11000 BCE).4

Privation stemming from Ice Ages and other forces may explain why MC subsequently ceased in European, northern Asian, and some other cultures.3 In the nineteenth century, the perception of health benefits, such as improved hygiene and protection against syphilis,7 balanitis, and phimosis,8, 9 is the likely explanation for the reemergence of MC in some Anglophone countries, particularly the United States.3 The US occupation of South Korea may explain why MC became popular there after World War II, whereas in the Philippines it was already an accepted practice before the US presence.10, 11 Globally, MC is common in diverse cultures, driven largely by religious and social customs, with an overall prevalence of 37%–39%.12

MC is just one of many factors that influence a woman’s choice of a male partner, others being religion, race, social class, personality, overall attractiveness, ability to provide for the woman and her offspring, ability to satisfy the woman sexually, and basic hygiene. Nevertheless, the attitudes and sexual experience of women regarding MC is an important research question. This is especially true given the health benefits provided by MC for men and their sexual partners, as well as women’s important influence in deciding whether their sons will be circumcised.

In the present study, we aimed to provide a systematic review of the scientific evidence examining women’s attitudes and preferences for MC in their male partners and male children.

The Social Life of Class Clowns: Class Clown Behavior Is Associated With More Friends, but Also More Aggressive Behavior in the Classroom

The Social Life of Class Clowns: Class Clown Behavior Is Associated With More Friends, but Also More Aggressive Behavior in the Classroom. Lisa Wagner. Front. Psychol., April 26 2019,

Abstract: A dimensional rather than a typological approach to studying class clown behavior was recently proposed (Ruch et al., 2014). In the present study, four dimensions of class clown behavior (class clown role, comic talent, disruptive rule-breaker, and subversive joker) were used to investigate the associations between class clown behavior and indicators of social status and social functioning in the classroom in a sample of N = 300 students attending grades 6 to 9 (mean age: 13.09 years, 47.7% male). Participants and their teachers completed measures of class clown behavior, and peer nominations of peer acceptance, mutual friends as well as social behavior in the classroom (popular-leadership, aggressive-disruptive, sensitive-isolated, and prosocial behaviors) were collected. The results showed that overall, class clown behavior was positively related to peer acceptance, the number of mutual friends in the classroom and peer-perceived social status. Overall, it was also positively related to peer-rated popular-leadership and aggressive-disruptive behaviors, as well as negatively related to prosocial behaviors. When considering the four dimensions of class clown behavior, comic talent was particularly relevant for the relationship with social status and with popular-leadership behaviors, but also with aggressive-disruptive behaviors. Aggressive-disruptive behaviors were also particularly related to the class clown dimension disruptive rule-breaker. The results underline the significance of class clown behavior for the social status and functioning of students and may help further understand the phenomenon in its multidimensional nature.


Relationships with peers impact well-being throughout the entire life span. However, the influence that peers exert on many areas of life seems to be most pervasive in early adolescence (see Parker et al., 2006). The impact of peer relationships spans from the development of cognitive and social skills, to maladaptive functioning and physical and psychological well-being (e.g., Hartup and Stevens, 1999; Parker et al., 2006; Rubin et al., 2015). Of particular importance for child adolescent development are peer relationships and social functioning in the classroom (e.g., Berndt and Ladd, 1989). In terms of how to assess social functioning in the classroom, peer nomination procedures such as the Revised Class Play (Masten et al., 1985), have demonstrated their ability to predict important life outcomes, such as academic and job success, social and romantic competence as well as internalizing and externalizing symptoms, for time spans of up to 10 years (Gest et al., 2006). Four areas of social behavior are typically distinguished (e.g., Realmuto et al., 1997; Zeller et al., 2003), two of which are adaptive (popular-leadership and prosocial behavior) and two of which are maladaptive (sensitive-isolated and aggressive-disruptive).

Next to social behavior in the classroom as perceived by the classmates, also the social status, that is peer acceptance and the number of mutual friends in the classroom, is an important indicator of positive peer relationships in adolescence, that has demonstrated its relevance for many important life outcomes. Peer acceptance is a unilateral construct that describes being liked by one’s classmates, whereas mutual friends are defined by a bilateral understanding, i.e., friendship nominations by both friends (Rubin et al., 2006; Waldrip et al., 2008; Bagwell and Schmidt, 2011). While many studies have focused on the impact of having versus not having a mutual friend, research also shows that it matters how many mutual friends an adolescent has. For instance, Gest et al. (2001) found the number of friends to uniquely predict prosocial behavior. Students who are highly accepted, that is well-liked, by their peers have been found to show a range of highly desirable characteristics, for example behaving appropriately, communicating well, and being perceived as helpful, cooperative, and good leaders by other students (Rubin et al., 2006). Peer acceptance was also found to be related to academic and athletic accomplishments (e.g., Asher and McDonald, 2009). In addition, being well-accepted by peers and having many friends has also been associated with individual differences in sense of humor (e.g., McGhee, 1989; Wanzer et al., 1996; Gest et al., 2001). [...].

Humor has been identified as a strength of character, and humans tend to find the expression of their signature (i.e., most characteristic) character strengths fulfilling (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). Individuals with the signature strength of humor tend to express humor in their behavior across different contexts and might thus earn a reputation for their humor in their social networks which might result in others using type nouns (like joker, wit, buffoon, or mocking bird) to refer to them (Craik and Ware, 2007). Often people using humor play a function in the institution they are in, such as the “organizational fool” (Kets de Vries, 1990) and the “class clown” (e.g., Damico and Purkey, 1978). Humor is a way of highlighting signs of hubris in leaders, of addressing taboo topics, and of relaxing strained situations. Thus, the institutional fool may satirize leaders and followers. As the truth is spoken in a fun manner, it can trespass on otherwise forbidden territory. Thus, the organizational fool can create a corrective force against the leadership in institutions and be a mediator between leader and followers.

There are comparable circumstances in the classroom where teachers typically socialize children into school culture. The teacher mostly decides who will speak, when, and about what, and also decides what he or she can conceive from the students. Oppositional students – and among these, students considered class clowns – might negotiate power in their classroom communities, and try to resist the set order during classroom lessons (McLaren, 1985; Radigan, 2001; Norrick and Klein, 2008). A class clown may become the opponent of the teacher; poke fun at the teacher’s words and action and undermine his authority, in front of the teacher or behind their backs. From the teachers’ perspective, students described as class clowns are mostly viewed as difficult students that require being disciplined (see e.g., Cohen and Fish, 1993; Hobday-Kusch and McVittie, 2002). Analyzing accounts of humorous situations in the classroom initiated by students toward teachers, Meeus and Mahieu (2009) found that while testing out, rebellion, and misbehavior were common motives identified, also positive motives, such as humor as atmosphere maker, played a role in these accounts.

The first significant study of class clowns (Damico and Purkey, 1976, 1978) identified 96 mostly male class clowns in a sample of 3,500 eighth graders. Compared to a control sample, class clowns were seen by teachers as significantly higher on asserting behaviors, attention seeking, unruliness, leadership, and cheerfulness, but lower in accomplishing, which was defined as “behaviors leading to successful completion of academic assignments” (p. 393). Relative to other students, the class clowns self-reported seeing school authorities, such as teachers or the principal, less positively, but there was no significant difference in class clowns’ attitudes toward classmates, the school in general, and the self. In this study by Damico and Purkey (1978), only students that received 10 or more nominations by their peers were considered a class clown and those that received 25 or more nominations were “super class clowns.” [...]

Going beyond previous conceptualizations of class clowns as a distinct “type” or categorical concept, Ruch et al. (2014) suggested an alternative approach to study class clown behavior, which is based on a variable-centered or dimensional view. That is, they assume a general dimension of class clown behavior, but also different related facets that can be used to describe class clown behavior further. These can be assessed using the Class Clown Behavior Survey (CCBS; Platt, 2012). The hierarchical model proposes a general factor of class clown behavior (as measured by the total score of the CCBS) as well as four lower-order dimensions of class clown behavior, which are positively correlated with class clown behavior. The first dimension, class clown role, consists of being labeled as the class clown by oneself and others (sample item of the CCBS: “My classmates would call me a class clown”). The second dimension, comic talent, describes being quick-witted, liking to entertain others with funny things, and spreading a good mood. It describes behavior that is not necessarily directed against the teacher or questioning the rules at school (sample item: “During class it does not take long until something funny comes into my mind that I can share with the person next to me”). The third dimension, disruptive rule-breaker, is characterized by poking fun at the teachers, not taking school rules seriously, and directly challenging the authority (sample item: “Some rules in class I find stupid and I laugh at them”). Similarly, in the fourth dimension, subversive joker, the class clown behavior is also aimed at undermining the teachers’ authority or directed against classmates. However, it is done behind the teacher’s back instead of in a direct confrontation (sample item: “When my teacher turns away, I invent jokes that I write on paper to show it to my classmates”).

[...]. Overall, the results of these two studies suggest that different dimensions of class clown behavior can be distinguished, that class clown behavior has both upsides and downsides, and that looking beyond the question of whether or not someone is labeled as “class clown” provides the possibility to gain a deeper insight into the correlates of class clown behavior.

There is some evidence of a relationship between class clown behavior and social status. Damico and Purkey (1978) concluded that their adolescent class clowns were found to have many behaviors and personal assessments in common with adult wits, and among the list of attributes (e.g., being male, leaders, active, independent, creative, and having positive self-perceptions), class clowns are also described as more popular. Likewise, Suitor et al. (2004) report that for male adolescents in private schools, class clowning is a successful route to gain prestige (more so than clothes or car ownership). A recent study by Barnett (2018) looked at the consequences of younger children’s playfulness in the classroom. The study found peer-rated social status to be unrelated with self-ratings of being a class clown (which had a rather low mean and variance) and positively related with peer-ratings of being a class clown. This study also underlined the relevance of sex differences: Although the relationships were present in boys and girls in the peer ratings, teachers had a stronger tendency to designate boys as “class clowns” than girls and teacher-rated class clown status was positively related to social status for girls, and negatively related to social status for boys.