"We are fucked in the following specific ways but probably no fuckeder"
November 1, 2018 7:44 AM   Subscribe

I belong to a vulnerable far-left community where a lot of misinformation flies around about government policy. I'd like to do a better job of refuting that misinformation — and in particular, of saying "Here's why that policy change doesn't go as far as you fear it does." Among other things, I'm looking for media that will help teach me to do that on specific issues. My usual diet of NPR, the NYT, and occasional Snopes aren't really helping, for reasons discussed inside.

Here's just one example, let's not get hung up on the specific example, of the sort of thing that goes wrong: This community is mostly trans, and the Trump administration recently called for a definition of gender that would exclude trans people. In the days following, there were a lot of conclusions drawn about what effects it would have if implemented, including:
  1. It will overturn state and local trans rights laws.
  2. It will make it illegal to prescribe us hormones or give us surgery.
  3. It will revoke our citizenship or empower the government to confiscate our passports.
  4. It will revoke our legal personhood (inspired, I think, by widespread comments that it sought to "define trans people out of existence").
Now, some of these might be goals of some people on the right. Some of them might even happen in the future. But my understanding is none of them are likely results of the specific policy move that the administration made — and a lot of people who are smart in other ways didn't seem to know that.

This sort of thing happens a lot (and not just with trans issues). I'd like to be able to counter it.

And here's the problem. The media sources I rely on didn't say "These things won't result from this change, and here's why." They were focused on saying "Here's what will result," and frankly their target audience was cis people who just needed to know "Trans people will suffer" and didn't need to know the details or the limits on that suffering. As a result, it took me a while to find the right set of facts to convince myself and others that the things on that list were false.

Compounding the problem is the fact that a lot of people in this community are quite sure the media lies by omission. So I couldn't just refute it by saying "If that was true, it would be on the front page of the New York Times." Similarly, trust in the government as a whole (under either party) is very low, so I couldn't just handwave and say "Checks and balances, that'll be prevented." I had to be able to say "No, look, here's what it would take to revoke someone's citizenship, here's what it would take to change that and make it easier to revoke someone's citizenship, here's how long it would take to do those things. A policy memo can't do that."

I would have loved it if some website had come out with an explainer in the days after that memo saying "Here are the limits of what this will do, and here are the reasons for those limits, and here's some evidence that will help you decide how confident to be that those limits will hold." (Snopes is less helpful, because it tends to say "Here's a refutation of this one conspiracy theory about this policy," not "Here are a wide range of factors limiting the effects of this policy.")

Where should I be looking for that sort of thing?

(In case you're worried I'm getting out of my lane: I'm also visibly trans; I'm also a leftist; I'm also marginalized in some of the other ways that people in this community are. I don't think this is a case of a less-vulnerable person trying to tell a more-vulnerable person "Shut up and stop worrying." Rather, what I'd like to be able to say is "That would affect me too, and I would find that scary too, and here are the facts that reassure me that this specific event won't do that.")
posted by nebulawindphone to Law & Government (20 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this will have what you want on your specific issue, but the Congressional Research Service generates lots and lots of reports about every conceivable subject. They are pretty wonky at times, but generally very readable. Everycrsreport.com is one source (there are other private websites that collect them as well).
posted by mrbarky at 8:16 AM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would love to see this resource as well! Even though I am female, my "commitment to factual accuracy" (some call it pedantry) frequently leads me to be the "well, actually" guy. And it's a hard message to craft without coming off like an apologist: yes, things are fucked! But not in the actual specific way that you're implying! And there are absolutely people to whom this project comes off as undermining their overall position.

Off the top of my head, I've sometimes found Vox explainers to be helpful. Sometimes the Atlantic will have an article that's relevant. Many times the source for one particular story is highly suspect in general, as well as correct on a specific item. So that's an added complication, obviously you don't want to be citing Breitbart.com as proof that appropriations bills are introdiced to the House before the Senate, or whatever.

In summary: it's a minefield, lots of one-off Googling, Vox, the Atlantic, and sometimes 538.com are helpful.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:19 AM on November 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

Vox could be a good resource for these types of questions. Their Explainer series is quite good.
posted by fso at 8:19 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Vox.

On the other hand, there are going to be limits. If your friends are sufficiently pessimistic and sufficiently imaginative, they will think of nightmare scenarios that the good wonks at Vox (or elsewhere) didn't dream of and don't bother to address.

In general, it takes nuanced judgement and a steady diet of well-sourced news and analysis to know what might and might not come out of a specific policy change.

It's also good to acknowledge that the Republican party is in the business of pushing limits that weren't pushed previously. For example, everyone in the respectable press is saying Trump doesn't have the power to change the meaning of birth-right citizenship, but I'm not so confident the Supreme Court won't give him his way. So maybe a bit of fear and loathing is a good thing. Hopefully it provides your friends with a motivation to vote!
posted by Winnie the Proust at 8:30 AM on November 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm not quite clear from your question if you're looking for quality information resources on this policy or general guidance on how to combat misinformation in your community.

It's helpful to have a roster of sources you know from experience to put out quality information. Algorithmic news feeds don't sort out the chaff from the wheat. Go directly to a source, if you can. That may mean a particular writer rather than a publication.

If I wanted to understand this topic I would Google something like "Department of Health and Human Services memo meaning" and look for a resource whose title makes clear its purpose is to elucidate.

That could lead me to this article, "What it means for the Trump administration to legally define 'sex'" from CNN. It avoids extreme language like "define out of existence" and is structured clearly in a question-answer format. That gives me a base to seek answers to further specific questions.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 8:40 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

When it's a Federal case, I often find myself linking to SCOTUSblog . I generally have to excerpt or summarize what they've said, but that's easy enough when working with such a fact-heavy source.
posted by teremala at 8:42 AM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are interested in the specific impacts of law and policy on a specific population you will almost certainly have better luck finding publications and resources that go into enough detail by looking out for “trade press” that focuses on your group.

Unfortunately, this particular topic is not my wheelhouse so I’m honestly not sure what a good resource would be. I might start with trans advocacy groups that focus on law and policy and check their media or press pages in case they put out a statement or press release. They may also have sections of the website for blogs or other forms of public outreach.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:43 AM on November 1, 2018

I would love to see this resource as well! Even though I am female, my "commitment to factual accuracy" (some call it pedantry) frequently leads me to be the "well, actually" guy. And it's a hard message to craft without coming off like an apologist: yes, things are fucked! But not in the actual specific way that you're implying! And there are absolutely people to whom this project comes off as undermining their overall position.

Oh, yeah, do I know this problem (I think it even pops up on Mefi, to the point that sometimes I regret saying something because, understandably, people take a focus on a particular detail as an attempt to discredit a concern altogether, as it sometimes is). I think the specific problem here is that these issues emerge in a very short period post-triggering event and so journalists aren't necessarily producing detailed analyses of very specific concerns in the necessary time frame. Do you think that perhaps as a long-term project you could try to make available to the community higher-quality analyses of the underlying structures that are the basis for not being excessively worried about a particular issue? Like, using the specific example, resources that explain the relationship of federal to state and local law when it comes to laws distinctively affecting trans people, resources explaining the basis for the legality of the prescription of hormones to trans people, etc.? Then when people are worrying about these issues in the basis of specific news, you could point back to a recognized high-quality source from which people can come to an understanding that that one particular concern is not well-founded? I know this is the long game, but it seems like marshalling such resources would be useful in other contexts, as well.
posted by praemunire at 8:48 AM on November 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

1) I'm looking for general advice on finding this sort of contextual information — not just on trans issues, but on policy news in general.

2) Since there have been a few comments on it (some deleted): please trust me when I say that the level of uninformed panic I'm seeing is harmful.

I'm not trying to lull anyone into complacency, convince anyone not to vote, convince anyone the Republicans are great, etc. I am trying to get myself and my friends the information we need to make good decisions about our safety and our future. When people misunderstand policy in ways that make it sound scarier than it is, it prevents them from making good decisions. Trust me when I say nobody I know is making the opposite mistake of deciding everything's fine when it isn't, and nobody is going to start making that mistake just because of me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:48 AM on November 1, 2018 [20 favorites]

The ACLU has a specific section of its website devoted to analysis of trans rights issues that might be helpful. On a more general level, well-known legal advocacy groups often produce this kind of analysis. Because they are advocacy groups, they can sometimes be a little optimistic in their public analyses, but you're not going to find any perfectly neutral sources on any controversial topic, however much they may frame themselves as objective.
posted by praemunire at 9:04 AM on November 1, 2018

I really appreciate the (weekly) CounterSpin (radio) reporting about the media.
posted by jillithd at 9:06 AM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Vox explainer series is the best attempt I've seen at trying to do this. Following some appellate and law prof twitter folks is also helpful (check out the #appellatetwitter hashtag for accounts to follow). Mostly, it comes down to understanding how the various layers of government interact and what the particular checks and balances are for each type of action. The issue with creeping fascism is that the success of any particular policy is primarily determined by the level of complicity in the checks and balances process. This is on top of the general fact that our laws are not self-enforcing and plaintiffs often incur significant costs and delays before ever seeing remedies. So any reliable source will tell you what the means for redress are, who controls those means, and what will happen if that path for redress is no longer viable or will take a long time to work.

So, will the Trump admin's proposed policy on defining gender "empower the government to confiscate our passports"? A reliable analysis will break this down into the following subquestions:
--What are the current ways that the government can revoke or invalidate passports? Can any of those be applied -- in good or bad faith -- to this situation?
--What are the new avenues for pursuing the policy? Executive order, waivers from current law, agency guidance, promulgating regulations, etc.
--What are your remedies if any of these goes forward? What happens while those actions are pending (e.g., is it reasonable to expect an injunction in your favor blocking the gov't action; who bears the burden of proof for the various actions)? What administrative agencies or courts would those actions go through, and who controls those? For example, the near-term impact of a policy might be different in the 2nd circuit vs. the 5th circuit. Is the issue a state-law-only question or is there something that would give SCOTUS jurisdiction? (passport issuance is a federal question that could involve SCOTUS but a state refusing to issue you the underlying documents necessary to obtain a passport might be remediable under the state constitution in a way that theoretically isn't reviewable by federal courts)
--How distributed is the power structure? Is it an issue mostly handled by random folks at a local level or by a more central agency staffed by civil servants? How likely is it that people will be working toward the fuhrer? And what is your personal ability to weather the fallout of a rogue fascist actor? For example, for what purposes do you use your passport as your only or primary identification? Is there a potential crime or violation you may be deemed to be committing by presenting your passport? How impacted will your life be if your passport is denied at TSA or temporarily confiscated, even if totally illegal and illegitimate? If you're a person who travels internationally a lot for work, this may be more of a risk to your health and safety than for a person whose livelihood is not linked to having a passport. And of course this is on top of other factors that influence how policies, enforcement, and incarceration disproportionately impact different populations (e.g., race, disability, wealth, etc.).

You may already follow him, but Chase Strangio is an attorney at the ACLU working on trans rights and is good source of information.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:24 AM on November 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Everyone's already said Vox but specifically Dara Lind on her twitter (@dlind) is an incredibly clear-headed, cautious source of information on immigration issues. The National Immigration Law Center puts out explainers when federal policy on immigrants changes and they're pretty great at explaining what is and what is not immediately at risk. They are, for example, an ideal source on public charge.

At Buzzfeed, Chris Geidner and Zoe Tillman are the best sources I know of on judicial issues and the federal courts; they tend to be a little less "this is how this might play out" than I want for what you're talking about, but they never overstep the facts or speculate dangerously, they just report exactly what happened and what it means for the present moment in a clear thoughtful way.

For LGBT issues I like @enoughtohold on Tumblr but they post about a whole bunch of stuff so it's not like a one-stop shop.
posted by peppercorn at 5:14 PM on November 1, 2018

Thanks for doing this nebulawindphone. If you are starting any sort of group where you're passing out this info I would like to be part of it because I am terrified for the safety of everyone who isn't a Trumpite.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 5:45 PM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for asking this question. I’ve dealt with this issue in leftist/activist communities I’m in and it can be really challenging.

I came here to recommend Vox. But also: one thing I had to start doing was understanding that for some people, this catastrophizing is sort of a necessary part of the process of dealing with the anxiety. They are actually hoping that someone will tell them it’s not quite as bad as they worry, but the argument needs to be airtight or it just feels like a “there, there.” And they need to not feel that the emotions driving this skepticism are being dismissed. So I think it’s really good to share these resources, but also understand that some people may need to take a while to absorb them. And it’s best if you can do so in as non-prescriptive way as you can.
posted by lunasol at 11:21 PM on November 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think the best source is individual journalists on twitter. The Times frontpage may not have the granular detail but Times Reporter #3 or Hobbyist Dude #5 might have spent hours researching it and have a twitter thread. If Trump was unleashing Sharknado I’d be looking for a marine biologist on twitter.

This writer isn’t a journalist but here’s a thread on this specific issue, parsing the difference between, “yes, panic” and “actually, it’s complicated”
posted by cricketcello at 11:28 AM on November 2, 2018

(Ha! That writer's a friend of mine, and I definitely found that thread helpful.

But in general, I find following a lot of politics-oriented accounts on Twitter to be really unpleasant and frankly not good for me, and on the rare occasion I do searches on the site I find they turn up a lot of noise. How did you go about finding that thread? And did you have to wade through a bunch of toxic crap to do it?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:58 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am really judicious about my twitter feed. It's mostly friends (some of whom are activists) who are non-toxic on twitter, and journalists/advocates who have shown they know their stuff. If I see people posting a lot of hot takes or toxic shit, they're gone.
posted by lunasol at 1:05 PM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Two points, here:

-While Vox Explainers are often helpful for this sort of thing, I do find that some of their other articles engage in the sort of hyperbole that you're describing. So be careful about using Vox.

-I think a lot of what Trump and his ilk are trying to do is stoke fear in people they don't like (this may be most true for immigrants, whom they want to leave or not come here in the first place, but it probably applies to others, too). So I think assuaging that fear, or working to channel in a more focused and productive direction, can be viewed as a form of resistance.
posted by breakin' the law at 5:41 PM on November 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Generally, I exist on twitter in a perpetual state of dread and anxiety. Specifically she was probably retweeted into my tl by someone I know or follow. It’s sort of a matter of following enough people until networking effects kick in. I’m not sure how to find signal in the noise of twitter but people with granular specific knowledge tend to stick in the memory.
posted by cricketcello at 10:26 AM on November 4, 2018

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