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Republicans unleash a flood of fake news on social media

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Research from the University of Oxford exposes how the far right is swamping our in-boxes with fake publications, in the approach to the 2020 elections.

“Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation” reveals how the far right uses “cybertroops” to manipulate public opinion on social media “by gaining control of the narrative in the information age.” Running “fake accounts to mask their identity and interests,” they attempt “to appear as grassroots activism” by “mimicking human users.” Their methodology is to “create substantive content to spread political messages.” Often, though, the political content is hidden: cybertroops “weave propaganda seamlessly into what appears to be the non‐political musings of an everyday person.” For example, the Oxford study cites “a fortune‐telling blog that provided insight into relationships, weight loss [and] Feng Shui” but that was, instead, a front for subtle, insidious far-right messaging.

With these facts in mind, meet “Mark Fike.” He purports to be the editor of an online publication, Great American Wildlife, that on its surface looks like a guide to fishing, camping and hunting. Sounds innocent enough, but take a closer look. “Mark Fike” mass emails Great American Wildlife to people (including me) from purchased mailing lists. There is substantial evidence that “Mark Fike” is not a real human being, but is a “bot,” and that “Great American Wildlife” is little more than a rightwing attempt to manipulate public opinion to be more favorable to Trump. Fike’s latest email (I get one a day) begins with an advertisement called “Here are Trump’s two plans for re-opening the economy.” The one before that has an ad called “Nancy Pelosi’s Plan to Crush the Stock Market (Democrats Didn’t See THIS Coming”). “Fike” also pushes a favorite theme of the white supremacist/militia/gun nut crowd: “living off the land and firearms. I get a lot of questions thrown to me by acquaintances” concerning these topics, he says, without citing specifics. This brings to mind Trump’s method of introducing controversial topics by alleging, “A lot of people are saying” when, in fact, nobody is saying, except for a handful of Fox “News” commentators and deranged talk show hosts like Alex Jones.

Great American Wildlife’s mailing address, by the way, is Rising Media News Network, 754 Warrenton Road, Fredricksburg VA. That’s also the address on another email I get everyday, from something called Black Eye Politics, whose “editor” is one “Jim Sanders.” Black Eye is far more overtly rightwing that Great American Wildlife: recent articles include “America Could Face a Great Depression: What Limbaugh Revealed Will Make You Red With Rage “ and “Tucker Carlson Raised a Red Flag About Joe Biden That Left Democrats in Tears.” Black Eye is particularly obsessed with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

A third online “periodical” is Deep State Journal, (editor: “John Garrett”), which similarly shares the same Virginia address on Warrenton Road as Great American Wildlife and Black Eye Politics. “Deep State” strikes a middle tone between the fake innocence of Great American Wildlife and the blatant rightwing paranoia of Black Eye. A recent article compared Democrats to Roger “Verbal” Kint (Keyser Soze), Kevin Spacey’s insane character in The Usual Suspects: “the devil [as] master of misdirection” practicing “sorcery.” Deep State targets Barack Obama consistently, playing to rightwing fears that Obama was actually an agent of a foreign power.

There are dozens of these phony online newsletters; they’re sent every day to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans, many of whom will read them and think—as the Oxford study says—that they’re “grassroots activism” created by “human users” when in reality they’re bots. Trying to contact these organizations is pointless, since they don’t actually exist. It’s impossible to unsubscribe to them: you just have to let your in-box be swamped with them.

The U.S. Government claims to be aware of the potential for mischief created by these cybertroops; a recent article in The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists cites an effort by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (a think tank within the Department of Defense), to create “an AI [artificial intelligence] early warning system to monitor [such] manipulated content…”. The article’s authors warn that “Our ability to connect online has far outpaced our capacity to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information.” The problem, they explain, is that “Intelligence agencies, political parties, and rogue actors are all taking advantage of this complex and exploitable web of interconnections and using social media to disseminate altered content, fake news, and propaganda to interfere in elections and even to incite direct violence.” Keep in mind, elements among the neo-nazi, white supremacist far right would love for civil unrest to strike America, since they feel that they would be the beneficiaries of such unrest.

DARPA claims it wants to “warn human observers such as journalists or election monitors about potential threats in real time” posed by cybertroops and their fake online publications. It may well be that some scientists at lower levels within DARPA have such concerns, but they are working for an administration that has shown no inclination to muzzle, much less expose, fake content, and one moreover that punishes whistleblowers whom Trump calls the “deep state enemies” of America.

Mark Fike…Jim Sanders…John Garrett…if you believe these are real human beings, then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. The Republican-Trump re-election campaign, possibly in collusion with Russian intelligence, is off to a swift start, spreading disinformation and smearing Democrats. Keep a close eye your own in-box.


OMGNAs: The wine writer’s nemesis

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When I was a working wine writer, it seemed like every year the magazine wanted the same story right around this time:

WHAT WINE TO DRINK AT THANKSGIVING

I dutifully handed in my assignments, but I never felt particularly proud of them. These kinds of stories are known in the trade as OMGNAs, as in “Oh, my God, not again.” It’s nearly impossible to do a good job writing them; writers loathe them, because they’re the same, year after year after year. And yet, if you complained, the editors and publishers always argued, “Well, our readers like them, so you have to write them.”

What can you say about Thanksgiving wine? Elin McCoy did about as credible a job as possible yesterday at Bloomberg News, when she gave the standard (and only plausible) advice: Put out a bunch of highly versatile wines—bubbly, red, white, and rosé…so people can chose for themselves.” I mean, what else is there to say? Nothing. That’s the truth in a nutshell. But a column requires more than 18 words, so you have to take that simple message and spin it out to 600 words or 900 words or whatever your word count is.

What are some other OMGNAs? Well, to some extent the inevitable varietal roundups are. Here in California there are 5 or 6 major varieties that wine magazines have to write about. Zinfandel is one. Every three or four years, they have to do their Zinfandel writeup, and the slant is always something along the lines of “What’s new in Zinfandel?” After all, that’s what the media writes about, right? The news! Problem is, there’s not always something newsy about Zinfandel. You can’t just write an article saying, “If you want to know what’s up with Zinfandel, read the article I wrote four years ago, because nothing has changed since then.” If you handed that in, your publisher would probably fire you, so you have to make it sound like Zinfandel has gone through breathtakingly awesome changes for the better since the last time you wrote about it, which is why such articles are usually headlined something like “Zinfandel’s New Face.” New face, my butt: Zinfandel’s face is the same as it’s been for a long time. (By the way, that’s not a slam. I love a good Zin!)

One of the OMGNAs I dreaded the most came with the arrival of warm weather. That was when we always had to come up with our “Summer Whites” articles. The meme was always the same: “Now that the long cold winter months are over, it’s time to break out the whites to drink by the pool and the beach.” Every wine magazine in the universe has to write that article, which appears in the May or June issue. The article never, ever varies: It’s always about cold, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, whatever. You can recycle the same article endlessly, changing a producer here and there, substituting one recipe for another, maybe interviewing a famous hostess for her suggestions on how to throw the perfect backyard party. Writers hate that kind of thing. Well, I did. It’s not really wine writing, it’s entertainment writing. The two genres are totally different.

So what kinds of articles did I actually like? Terroir articles were the best. When I wrote about Cooombsville, I was in my element. Same with my article on Pritchard Hill, which was tremendously enjoyable. I got to dive down deep into issues of soil and climate. I met the major players and picked their brains, learning about their histories and their dreams. I tasted and analyzed the wines. The goal was for me to understand this area of Napa Valley, and so to be able to explain it to readers. That took real investigative reporting. It required the skills I had trained myself in for many years. There was no template: I had to come to my own conclusions and then frame them professionally and, I hoped, unassailably.

Well, I do realize that not every article a fulltime wine writer writes can be that fulfilling. I have some understanding of the way a wine magazine works, and how the bills are paid, and those Thanksgiving and Summer Whites articles are part and parcel of the process. So, I always told myself whenever I had to write them, just grin and bear it. That’s what pays your salary, Steve-o.


The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine coverage, and Vegas, here I come!

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I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.

Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.

* * *

Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.

I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.

The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.

If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…


Friday Fishwrap: the S.F. Chronicle, and the Petaluma Gap

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It’s really sad how the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine coverage has dropped off the cliff since the paper and Jon Bonné parted ways.

I didn’t always agree with Jon. I hated his attitude towards alcohol and thought he was unfair in his treatment of California wineries. But at least Jon was a true wine writer: passionate, opinionated and with the means to taste broadly and deeply.

Now that he’s gone, the Chron—which is not only Northern California’s largest-circulation newspaper but is based in the gateway to wine country, San Francisco—is barely covering wine at all. I’ve read the Chron for more than thirty years, and this is the worst its wine reporting has ever been. It is, to the best of my memory, the first time in decades that the paper hasn’t had a fulltime wine writer/critic.

The need for having one is obvious. Wine is huge in Northern California. Nearly everybody drinks it. Food and restaurants also are huge in Northern California; people love to eat out, or tinker in their kitchens. The Chron does a very good job of covering food and restaurants. And what beverage is more intimately connected with food than wine?

I suspect, although I can’t prove it, that the Chron canned its wine coverage because wineries don’t advertise. I understand that ads, not subscriptions, are what keep print publications afloat. I suppose it made sense, in a green eyeshades way, for the Chron’s management to ditch wine. But it doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of being a great newspaper.

* * *

I’ve been thinking of that winegrowing area east of Petaluma in Sonoma County where the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Sonoma Valley AVAs all sort of come together. It’s a weird little place whose most significant terroir impact comes from the Petaluma Gap. Up until fairly recently, we hadn’t seen many vineyards or grapes grown there, but that’s fast changing, especially with the growing popularity of Pinot Noir. Later today, I’ll be driving up to Hartford Court Winery, where we’re doing another of our weekly tastings, this time of Sonoma Coast Pinots. Among them is DuMol’s 2012 Eoin, made from grapes grown in the Sonoma Stage Vineyard, which is right in that funny area. It’s a cool-climate region, not as cool as, say, the Santa Maria Valley, but almost. There aren’t many new Pinot-growing areas in California that are interesting these days, but this one is. Stay tuned.

Petaluma_Gap_Map_JUL15

And have a great weekend!


What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

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You’ve probably read about it: According to Fox News, a new study out of Spain has been widely reported to “prove” that “People think weaker wine tastes better.”

But, in fact, the study doesn’t show that at all; and much of the second-hand reporting on the study actually shows how lazy journalists can be.

For example, the Fox account of the study claims that people think wine with a lower alcohol content tastes [better] because it allows them to focus on the diverse flavor profiles of the beverage.”

That’s a pretty sweeping statement. If you’ve been deep into the alcohol-level tall weeds, as I’ve been, you might think, “Wow, that gives credence to the In Pursuit of Balance argument.” But, in fact, if you read through the entire Fox report, you won’t find a single wine variety mentioned. You will find the implication that wine with 12 percent alcohol “induce[s] a greater…exploration of sensory attributes” than wines in the 14-15 percent range, or higher.

Well, let’s think about that for a minute. Do you really want to drink a 12 percent Zinfandel? A 12 percent Petite Sirah? A 12 percent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier? In fact, let’s be even more generous and raise the alcohol level on those six varieties to 13 percent. What do you think they’d taste like in California?

Not very good. They wouldn’t be ripe—nowhere near ripe. They’d be all sour in acidity, with chlorophyll flavors and tart green fruit. This is why California vintners allow those varieties to get ripe enough to yield wines above 14 percent and usually above 14.5 percent. In the case of Zinfandel and Viognier, sometimes the alcohol level is 15 percent or higher.

When we’re talking about Pinot Noir (and sometimes Chardonnay), the story is, of course, different. California can indeed produce splendid Pinots below 14 percent in a good vintage, as the recent I.P.O.B. tasting showed. But to use the Spanish study to “prove” that consumers don’t like any wine over 14 percent is completely misleading.

Let’s look at the study itself, not just Fox’s reporting. Its key finding—the one seized upon by so much of the media—is, “significantly greater activation [of the brain’s flavor-processing regions] was found for low-alcohol than for high-alcohol content wines…”. It is this assertion that led to such headlines as:

Does weak wine taste BETTER?” (Daily Mail)

“Wine With Lower Alcohol is More Appealing” (Bustle)

and “Taste Perception Higher With Lower Alcohol Wines” (The Drinks Business)

But, again, the actual study did not identify specific grape varieties that were given to the subjects. (Does anyone really think that a low- alcohol Zinfandel from Amador County or an unripe Viognier from Russian River is “more appealing” than a ripe one?) All the study says is that the wines tasted were red Spanish [varieties] coming from Rioja, Navarra, and Cataluña),” of unidentified grape varieties (although we can presume they were old varieties like Garnacha, Tempranillo and Monastrell; there may have been some Cabernet and/or Merlot blended into them to make them richer). All of the 26 subject tasters were Spanish. From this, we can infer that the subjects all had palates geared towards Spanish (not California) wines. We also can infer that, in all probability, they are not familiar with our California wines that routinely clock in higher than 14.5 percent alcohol. And so, it seems to me, the study has very little application to an assessment of ripeness and alcohol levels in California wines.

Discover Magazine also reported on the Spanish study and also read into it things that are not supported by the facts. They wrote: people tend to pay more attention to the flavor when the alcohol content is low.” Well, I would wager that if you give a big, tasty California Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Viognier, etc. to anyone, even Europeans, they would not and could not indict it for lacking in flavor! Some of them might not care for that particular wine—but they’d pay attention. And that’s what makes the world go ‘round: Different strokes for different folks. That doesn’t bother me at all—but sloppy reporting does. The Spanish study simply doesn’t support the “low alcohol wines are better” headlines.


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