Digital Crazytown and the Anonymous Memo

Unethical media and politics have combined to create “Digital Crazytown.”

On Sept. 5, the New York Times published an anonymous memo by a senior official in the Trump Administration who called the president so amoral that his “appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

The President is so irate that he believes the source of the memo may have committed “treason,” prompting dozens of his top officials to claim they were not the author.

One of those was Chief of Staff John Kelly, cited in Bob Woodward’s new book Fear as stating:

“He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown”

Crazytown is an apt phrase describing the milieu in Washington.

As author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine  and Living Media EthicsI can comment on two lingering questions concerning this issue: (a) Can technology help identify who the author is, and (b) Should the Times have published an anonymous op-ed? 

I have one more qualification: My Ph.D. in English and specialties in Elizabethan playwrights like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

In 2005, I published a piece in Inside Higher Ed in which I used my textual editing skills–developed to discern “fair” and “foul” copies of plays–to help identify a professor who kept leaving unflattering anonymous notes in the mailboxes of colleagues. Here’s what I wrote in the essay titled “Such Stuff As Footnotes Are Made On“:

You see, over time, each of us develops a distinct textual signature. We may be given to odd phrases, locutions and colloquialisms, such as “in regards to” or “clearly, it seems” or “in cahoots with,” as in, “In regards to his annual review, clearly, it seems, John Doe is in cahoots with the Dean.” Collect enough writing samples, and you can identify the likely source of such a sentence, just as you can discern a fair from foul excerpt of a Shakespearean play.

In this case, I took awkward locutions in the anonymous notes and ran them through thousands of emails on the university server. Bingo!

This is a popular application, the most famous of which concerned Shakespeare Professor Don Foster at Vassar College, known for outing journalist Joe Klein as the anonymous author of the 1996 book Primary Colors. 

A quick analysis of text in the anonymous memo concerns the use of the word “lodestar”–or navigation star, typically Polaris, used to guide a ship–by Vice President Mike Pence. People quickly glommed on to that, as in this video:

Not so fast. First of all, Pence issued a fierce denial that he was the author, stating in the Times:

“Anyone who would write an anonymous editorial smearing this president who’s provided extraordinary leadership for this country should not be working for this administration. They ought to do the honorable thing and they ought to resign.”

We expect denials, of course. However, there is a big difference these days in detecting linguistic fingerprints compared to when Foster and I did it years ago. Pence could have been set up by someone so technologically savvy that use of that word “lodestar” was deliberate.

That’s how digitally manipulative we have become.

Nonetheless, tech applications using machine intelligence have been used to detect authorship for the past decade. Case in point: When Harry Potter author JK Rowling wrote the novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name of Robert Galbraith, readers noticed linguistic similarities. An application was applied, and Bingo!–Rowling was identified.

Use of AI to detect the author of the memo typically can work around planted words like “lodestar” and provide statistical probabilities concerning who wrote the memo.

The next question is whether the Times should have published it. Here’s how the newspaper defended its decision:

The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.

Well, wait a minute. In an era of fake news, including ones promulgated to spoof the public and its opinion–such as this one about Michael Jordan resigning from the Nike Board because of the ad featuring Colin Kaepernick–journalism integrity “trumps” sensationalism.  So no, the Times should not have published the anonymous op-ed unless–and this is a BIG unless–someone so high in the administration wrote it that editors just could not resist the temptation to violate its own values. Here’s an excerpt about anonymous sources from the Times ethics code:

Because our voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small. … We observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing [my italics].

Now the Times faces another ethical dilemma. The Opinion Section operates apart from the News Division. Will one investigate the other? President Trump has suggested just that in this tweet:

That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem, and that statement is testament to just how crazy journalism along with politics has become in digital Crazytown.

The forthcoming edition of Living Media Ethics has chapters on manipulation, temptation and ethics codes, including anonymous sourcing and its dangers. Interpersonal Divide includes chapters on artificial intelligence and how it is being used in datamining and surveillance.

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