Circling Back to “Don’t Discount Lab Leak Hypothesis”, Part II

Part II of “Circling Back to Lab Leak Hypothesis”

I’ve moved on from Facebook, but wanted to archive for posterity a few long-form posts I made there. This is Part II, a follow-on to Circling Back to a “Don’t Discount the Lab Leak” Post of January 2020 (Part I).

The essence of learning is to be able to update our prior assumptions as new evidence comes in. I got a few things wrong here, and absorbed what I could of information coming out at the time. In particular, you’ll see my initial credulous assumption that the highly flawed “Proximal Origins” paper had to have some credibility. In truth, that paper — the most cited scientific paper that year — was fraudulent; this fact became evident to me a few weeks later.

April 15 2020

full text below

I know that nuance is still in hibernation in America, but I’m going to ask us once again to try to hold multiple competing thoughts in our mind at the same time:

1) It’s important to know how this whole global pandemic started. In terms of deaths and pauses to our lives and economic toll, it’s the greatest global calamity of most of our lifetimes.

Let’s try to keep it that way. In order to do so, we need to know how to prevent future such outbreaks, and particularly, if there are lessons to be learned here.

2) Just as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island warranted (actually, demanded) forensic investigation, so too does the COVID-19 outbreak.

3) Just as in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, there should not be any assumption of malicious intent. But this is not the same as saying we should ignore the question of how it began, nor shut down those who wish to respectfully, scientifically, forensically pursue that important question. But like a post-crash NTSB investigation, if we do not know the cause, we have no chance of minimizing such events in the future. And as with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, let’s hold to account the governments and officials who were involved in any coverup or put people in knowing additional danger because of their actions, assuming they exist (and it already appears they do.)

4) It IS racist to “blame”, say, Chinese Americans, or the billion-plus Chinese citizens who are clearly NOT associated with this in any way. Even if incontrovertible proof were found showing an accidental lab leak scenario, they had NOTHING to do with it. Nothing.

And it IS racist and dangerous to expand criticism or action in any way to various Asian communities. We should NOT do that, and protections and kindness should be foremost. In fact extra kindness is called for.

But that also doesn’t mean avoiding forensic, respectful inquiry.

I am an American-Canadian citizen. I had nothing to do with Three Mile Island. It would be wrong to blame me for Three Mile Island. I would find that very unfair. Yet I definitely am glad we pursued the investigation aggressively as to its origin. Doing so made every nuclear power plant safer.

Just as nearly every single Chinese citizen (and all Chinese Americans) had nothing to do with this outbreak — AND many, many have been working hard to control it. And Chinese heroes have died trying to spread the word — we should know and celebrate them.

5) We should do our best to respect, protect and reach out with kindness to our Chinese American and Asian American friends, because unfortunately, we live in an era where terrible people may wish to exploit this, and already are. But this does not mean that we should stifle forensic investigation.

6) The concepts of “engineered in a lab” and “accidentally leaked from a lab” are two entirely different concepts. One does not imply or require the other. Disproving one does not disprove the other. It is entirely plausible that there was an industrial accident from an academic research effort of a discovered, naturally created, naturally mutated virus with NO malicious intent whatsoever, perhaps through multiple steps in a chain of possession (e.g., academic research injecting it into an animal, followed by discarded animal specimen, not properly secured, then picked up and re-sold or consumed or in some way by some other unrelated, unknowing person, with the virus jumping zoonotically) that spiraled into a huge global catastrophe.

In fact I am among those who believe this is one of the most plausible and probable scenarios, which meets Occam’s Razor, which is not contravened by any known evidence, and is supported by a lot of various pieces of circumstantial evidence that we do know (e.g., lab proximity, prior warnings from science community about lab safety at these labs, the fact that the lab 300 yards away just happened to be researching bat caronaviruses that are found to be 90%+ of the DNA of COVID-19, job postings for bat virus researchers at that very same lab verified on the Internet in November 2019, the fact that the virus shares 90%+ DNA came from hundreds of miles away and are not naturally occurring in the city of Wuhan, the fact that the wet market in question never sold pangolins or bats, the fact that the leading bat researcher actually had publicly stated she wondered to herself whether the virus came from her lab, the fact that the Chinese government initially said this emerged from the sea via seafood (and the DNA shows it did not), internal urgent governmental directives discussing lab safety in early January, destruction of samples and suppression of information, etc. — actually several more circumstantial pieces of evidence here, but you get the idea. It’s starting to sound very plausible.)

In no way do I think the virus was engineered, nor have I ever felt that way. And DNA evidence certainly points away from it. And no, I also do not think there was any malicious intent by any individual involved — just like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, where no malicious intent caused the accident.

When humans are involved, accidents happen, even major ones with huge global ramifications. Did it happen here? I think so, and have felt it plausible since January, but don’t know for sure.

It’s not only a very valid but a very IMPORTANT question to pursue.

An accident is just one plausible scenario, and I could certainly be wrong. But we do no favors to science, nor hopes of preventing future such calamities, to rule it out or even decry it as racist or to a lesser degree, employing the cheap “what are you really saying?” innuendo at this stage. The totality of all evidence that I’m aware of, though yes, circumstantial, fairly strongly suggests this might have accidentally leaked from a lab. No evidence that I’m aware of currently contravenes that likelihood. Perhaps it was an accident, a calamitous accident of truly epic proportions. And if so, lab safety MUST be transparently investigated and tightened.


7) All of the above can (and should) happen regardless of one’s views about who should be elected president in 2020.

June 25, 2021

From an opinion piece in the NYT today.

Amazing that three of the very signers of the famous Lancet letter declaring near certainty of natural origin are now not only walking it back but reversing their stance.

Perhaps more important, just a few months ago, Facebook was banning these very statements/stances, and Twitter was slapping them with all kinds of warnings, in large part because they took the Lancet letter speculation as the “definitive” view.

You or I would have run the risk of a permanent ban from social media for saying what these three virologists are now stating on record, such as: “a lab leak is more likely than spontaneous natural origin.”

Note that very little brand new information has come to the fore (at least publicly) since then.

All that’s really changed is that it’s now deemed an acceptable view. And these authors were part of the reason why social media teams determined it WASN’T an acceptable view just months ago.

I hope we can pause a moment and think about that.

January 5, 2021

“It has been a full year, 80 million people have been infected, and, surprisingly, no public investigation has taken place. We still know very little about the origins of this disease.”

Huh. New York Magazine, of all publications, is running this piece today under their banner. This piece goes far further than I would (or do) in speculation about origin.

But is it OK to talk about this now, when just months ago, the possibility that this might have been an accidental lab leak (not even engineered, and certainly not intentional) was treated as an atrocious thing to say?

Yes, it’s a sensitive topic. And we could certainly continue to sweep it under the rug. But there are major benefits to determining the specific origins of the greatest world health and economic crisis in our lifetime.

Just as NTSB exists to make flight safer for all. And in that process, it must consider matters of fault-finding (e.g., pilot error, mechanical process, manufacturing defect, etc.) The process isn’t undertaken with a goal of prosecution or retribution, but to make things safer in the future.

We need to give ourselves the permission to discuss it. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s just a theory. And we are not only incurious about it, we actively shout down those who want to respectfully consider the possibility. That’s not enlightened. That’s stupid. I applaud publications like New York Magazine for finally starting to allow the discussion to take place within their brand. I wonder though if we would have been even better served to have such an attitude when the evidence was more fresh.

Regardless, I still think the first time we will likely actually talk about this in depth is when the inevitable Hollywood movie comes out in a few years. Only then, when someone else in pop culture has opened the door, can we have the honest and full conversation that’s needed.

Circling Back to a “Don’t Discount the Lab Leak” Post of January 2020

In January 2020, I posted my view that the outbreak of what was to be called COVID quite possibly came by way of lab accident. It generated over 100 comments and ended at least one friendship. I popped by Facebook yesterday to circle back on that thread.

Though I stopped posting to Facebook in late 2021, I returned yesterday to circle back to an old post.

Hi friends,

Just a brief return to Facebook. I feel compelled to share some thoughts, now that our federal government leans ever closer to “lab origin,” which some of you may recall is an issue I’ve talked at length about here in the past.

Dusting off Facebook’s search feature (hey, nice new icons and web refresh, FB!), I see that on January 26th, 2020, weeks before the first American was definitively known to have died due to the virus, I posted my strong suspicion, linked post below, that the outbreak of that was to be called COVID was likely due to a lab accident.

It’s interesting to review some of the discussion which took place then, and in subsequent posts on the topic.

As we sit here today (March 1, 2023), three years later, the lab-leak hypothesis isn’t some crackpot idea. It’s a majority-held American viewpoint, now publicly endorsed by the FBI (moderate confidence) and the Department of Energy (low confidence), and by more than 70% of Americans. A shrinking minority of Americans (~25% and shrinking) think “natural spillover” was the genesis of the greatest health crisis in our lifetime.

Three years ago, I did not post my own view lightly, nor cavalierly. The president at the time was out calling the virus the “Wuhan virus” and creating an atmosphere of xenophobia. The overall public temperature seemed to suggest it an offensive stance to take. I certainly knew that it’s not something to be flip about.

In fact, my own confidence was actually stronger than I wrote at the time. And it wasn’t a casual observation.

Editorial note: Even in January 2020, there was ample evidence that WIV was doing research on bat-borne coronaviruses, that the facility was rather new, that officials had previously expressed safety concerns about it, that lab leaks elsewhere had happened with alarming frequency, that a major debate had raged in the scientific community about "gain of function" research from 2011-2014. Dr. Anthony Fauci was adamantly on the "pro" side, even writing "it's a risk worth taking." This was all knowable in January 2020, and I had read all these pieces and more by that time. 

Further, as an applied math major, I was pretty familiar with basic Bayesian math, and the chances that a lab studying bat-borne viruses and an outbreak of a novel coronavirus whose closest cousin was a bat-bourne virus were independent things seemed extremely low. Not just geographic coincidence, but temporal coincidence, species coincidence and far more. In shorthand, assume the lab and outbreak are unrelated (ie, natural spillover.) So of all the cities, Why Wuhan? And of all the years, Why 2019? And of all the species, Why Bats? Etc. The odds of all these happening and the bat coronavirus lab in central Wuhan NOT being related in any way are astronomical. Then, add in just how well optimized it seemed for human replication right out of the gate; that is unusual, and if it were from a host animal, wouldn’t it have started in some more remote village(s) first? Then, add in all the adverse inference you can and should draw by deletion of databases, not allowing inspectors in when they have every possible incentive to prove natural zoonoses, wiping the lab(s) clean, etc. All tolled, these are not equal-probability hypotheses, but skew very strongly in one direction.

I worried a bit about Facebook booting me off the platform, and offending friends/family (though it shouldn’t offend!), so I walked up to the edge of it, and simply cautioned people from throwing that in the tin-foil hat bin.

But I believed it then, and I believe it today. There is basically no concrete evidence supporting the “natural spillover” origin theory, and an enormous amount of evidence — circumstantial and otherwise — pointing in the direction of lab accident. And if lab accident is the origin, that means our government failed us, that all this that we lived through these past three years, didn’t have to happen.

Over the past three years, I’ve watched as people who shared my view on this were vilified, ostracized, deplatformed from social media, misrepresented, distorted, and more.

Sure, staying silent was an option open to me. Why didn’t I?

Well, the best analogy I can think of is an earworm. Some of you may get an “earworm” when you hear a song that sticks with you. For me, for about 3 years, I’ve occasionally thought to myself:


It has been overwhelming at times — millions of people’s lives ended prematurely. More than 60x the number of people killed in the first nuclear explosion. Sons and daughters not being able to say goodbye to their loved ones in person. Suffocation on ventilators. Learning loss. Addiction. Trillions of dollars of capital vaporized. Mandatory masking. Mandatory vaccination. Political tribalism. Friendships destroyed. Businesses and dreams destroyed. And so much more.

And I’ve watched as institutions we should trust — academia, the news media, the CDC, politicians and more — have drifted so far afield in their roles. Some responded well to the crisis — particularly the health agencies of Western Europe. Too many others, including our own, did poorly. Too many politicians took “Never let a crisis go to waste” and opted for the corollary, “Preserve the crisis.”

So many Americans assumed that one’s public stance on COVID origin MUST imply one’s stance about politics, or even one’s inherent “goodness.” I’ve never believed that. These issues are, or should be, entirely separate. But for some reason, people have allowed these issues to be fused.

To so many people, it’s better to be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong reasons. I’m sorry, I reject that bargain.

As 2020, 2021 and 2022 progressed, I continued to respectfully share my viewpoint, which ran against most progressives’ viewpoint on it. And many (most?) of my friends are progressive, or at least were.

But nevertheless, I felt compelled to stick to what I thought then and still think today was grounded in more significant evidence. I also thought, and still think, the magnitude of this issue — the greatest health, education, lifestyle and economic disruption in our lifetime — was important to talk about, and to process some of those ideas.

But these sentiments were and I think still are a mismatch with social networking. And they’re certainly not ideal for Facebook and interleaved with friendly catch-up notes, as my wife rightly pointed out privately to me in increasing fashion. I departed Facebook at the end of 2021 (and it’s been a good decision, and one I’ll soon return to.)

But I wanted to return to FB momentarily to say that I appreciate that all of you — my many friends and family members — did NOT do what a lot of other people did to those who felt that lab origin was the most likely source of the greatest health crisis of our lifetime. You did NOT take my contrarian viewpoint on this as any kind of statement about me, or who I am. You did not (for the most part, at least) assume that this implied which team jersey I was sporting, or even if I owned one at all. You may have believed in natural spillover. No doubt some of you may even still believe that today, and that’s OK. (If you are at all interested, I’d be happy to patiently walk through the copious evidence suggesting otherwise, but I’ll leave that for a face to face chat if you’d like.)

A few points:

  1. Forgiveness is powerful. As we move closer and closer to consensus of lab origin, there will be many people who want to move onto the retribution phase. But all the evidence suggests that it was accidental, and that we in the US are culpable here too, as this research likely would not have happened were it not for our misguided, impossibly tragic proactive enablement of it.
  2. Please try not to let politics or tribal affiliation keep you from what you think to be true. Break out of your tribe — there are many forces pushing people to choose team A or B. Neither owns the truth. The media has become ever more interested in AFFIRMING, not INFORMING. It’s about engagement now, and nothing engages more than affirmation and outrage. It’s up to you to be your own news editor. Do you have enough respectful dissent in your information diet?
  3. Accidents happen, even catastrophic ones. Never once have I ever implied, nor do I believe, this catastrophe was intentional. I think the research was well-intentioned, but safety precautions lax. SARS, for instance, has leaked from labs multiple times, and from a lab-safety standpoint, this is no different. Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island were all unintentional. I could EASILY envision myself as an earnest medical researcher in a lab in China, unknowingly infected, visiting a market on my commute home. There will be a time to review the legacies of Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins and others, who likely were quite proximal in funding and later obfuscating the research which went on.
  4. What do we do with the knowledge that it’s likely of lab origin? It’s absolutely gob-smacking to basically know, with high probability, that none of this needed to happen. None of it. The deaths, the trillions of dollars of capital vaporized. The Zooms. The masking. The vax mandates. The inflation. The arguments and fissures in our very social fabric.
  5. Do you realize we are STILL funding EcoHealth Alliance with our tax dollars? (And many of the scientists enlisted to debunk the lab leak hypothesis have been granted millions of dollars from NIH. And Fauci’s personally designated successor now heads USAIAD. And. and. and.)

But we can take sensible action.

For one, if there’s ever been a role for Congressional oversight, the premature death of millions certainly calls for it. Second, on a practical level, maybe let’s not locate BSL facilities in major metropolitan areas. There are in fact hundreds of these labs around the world, and we need to consider their existential risk. Third, let’s please determine out how this research WAS funded and approved despite a clear presidential moratorium that was in effect at the time (2014-2017.) The evidence strongly suggests that the presidential moratorium caused federal advocates to look to a third-party packager to continue this research abroad, in what turned out to be much more loosely supervised settings. We need limits on how this new technology that’s been unlocked (ACE2 mice, etc.) stays in responsible hands.

We clearly need to overhaul institutions that failed us (NIH, CDC in particular, but also, it’s been tremendously disappointing to see medical organizations and even medical schools being captured by ideologues.) The role of public health should be to help navigate the path of least overall harm. It failed to do so.

We need Congressional oversight, and it will continue to be political. But let’s try to stick to the science and probabilities about it.

Anyway, it’s been a crazy three years.

Some of you may find issues like Climate Change existential and all-consuming, because you are good people, and you care. For me, to be quite frank, I think this issue has much greater probability to be of existential risk in the next 250 years if we do nothing. It mattered to know how Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon happened, and how and why planes crash. We have the NTSB for a reason.

I appreciate that nearly all of you are still my friends & family. You may not think Facebook is the right forum for this, and, well, you are right. But I did want to circle back to you and close the loop on this thread, since it’s now not just in the Overton Window, it is a majority-held American view.

The essence of learning is to be able to update one’s own prior assumptions as new evidence comes in. We should not let political tribalism prevent us from doing so.

As we have seen time and time again with COVID — whether it’s relative risk for the young vs. old, the cost/benefit of remote schooling, the strength of natural immunity, how much vax mandates work or don’t, whether mandates or informed consent are superior — the stakes are pretty enormous, and what we are told may not be precisely what is true.

To see just how insane it’s all become, try this counterfactual: Imagine if Trump, a germaphobe, had forced a full nationwide lockdown in 2020, remote schooling, mask mandate, mandated shots, etc. as harshly as he could, and was -adamant- it was natural spillover (“bat soup” has always been more racist to me, than well-intentioned lab worker gets infected, as any of us might.) What would the Democrat position be today?

I am quite well, luckily, and though the above might sound like the rantings of a madman, I’m fine and happy. The past three years have taken a toll on everyone, but far lighter than it could on me. I’m extremely optimistic for what’s ahead.

Love to you all. Stay well,


#TwitterFiles: The Complete List

An index of all the Twitter Files threads, including summaries.

Twitter Files: The Complete List

The Twitter Files are a set of Twitter threads based on internal Twitter Inc. documents that were made public starting in December 2022. Here’s a complete list as of this writing. I offer up my own subjective summary of each, but I urge you visit the thread and form your own opinion. I’ll attempt to keep this index up-to-date as new ones come in.

At the end of this index, you’ll see some “meta” reporting, including Congressional testimony, interviews with authors and more.

Nomenclature: I refer to the pre-Musk era at the company as Twitter 1.0. That runs from the founding of Twitter through late October, 2022.

1. Twitter and the Hunter Biden Laptop Story, Dec 2 2022

Summary: Twitter blocked the New York Post from sharing a bombshell October 2020 story about Hunter Biden’s laptop contents, just prior to the 2020 US presidential election. It also suppressed people re-sharing this story, including the Press Secretary of the United States. Twitter attempted to justify this under its “hacked materials” policy, even though there was considerable debate about whether it legitimately applied.

1a. Twitter Files Supplemental

Summary: The Twitter Files 1 thread was delayed, based upon the surprising revelation that then-employee Jim Baker, former FBI General Counsel and current Twitter Deputy Counsel had been reviewing all materials before handing them to the journalists Musk invited to Twitter HQ. (Musk let Baker go.) Bari Weiss uncovers the Baker story.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles)

2. Twitter’s Secret Blacklists: Shadow Banning and “Visibility Filtering” of users, Dec 8, 2022

Summary: Was Twitter 1.0 “shadow-banning?” Twitter executives Jack Dorsey and Vijaya Gadde have frequently claimed that Twitter does not shadow-ban, but multiple tools exist within Twitter to limit the tweet distribution and visibility of a given account. “Do Not Amplify” settings exist, as do several settings around propagation of tweets to others.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles2)
3. The Removal of Donald Trump Part One: Oct 2020-Jan 6 2021, Dec 9, 2022

Summary: On January 7th 2021, Twitter summarily banned the 45th President of the United States from its platform. What led up to their decision, and what were some of the internal conversations surrounding it? Part 1 of 3.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles3)
4. United States Capitol Attack January 6th 2021, Dec 10 2022

Summary: The ban of Donald Trump from Twitter stemmed directly from the January 6th 2021 attack on the United States Capitol by supporters/protestors/rioters. The stunning event led Twitter executives to finally make the call they had long discussed. Part 2 of 3

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles4)
5. The Removal of Trump from Twitter, January 8th 2021: Dec 12, 2022

Summary: Trump was banned from Twitter on January 8th, 2021. Though Twitter 1.0 was always adjusting discussion rules on the platform, it’s notable that on January 7th, Twitter staff adjusted several key rules to allow for and justify the banning of the then-President. Part 3 of 3

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles5)
6. FBI & Hunter Biden Laptop, Dec 16, 2022

Summary: The FBI attempted to discredit factual information about Hunter Biden’s foreign business activities both after and even before the NY Post revealed the contents of his laptop. Why would the FBI be doing this? And what channels existed between the FBI and Twitter 1.0?

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles6)
7. Twitter, The FBI Subsidiary, Dec 19, 2022

Summary: Twitter’s contact with the FBI was constant, both social and professional, and pervasive. A surprising number of communications from the FBI included requests to take action on election misinformation, even involving joke tweets from low-follower and satirical accounts. FBI asked Twitter to look at certain accounts, suggesting that they “may potentially constitute violations of Terms of Service.”

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles7)
8. How Twitter Quietly Aided the Pentagon’s Covert Online PsyOp Campaign, Dec 20, 2022

Summary: While they made public assurances suggesting they would detect and thwart government-based manipulation, behind the scenes Twitter 1.0 gave approval and special protection to a branch of the US military related to psychological influence operations in certain instances.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles8)
9. Twitter and “Other Government Agencies”, Dec 24 2022

Summary: The FBI responds to Twitter Files 7, vigorously disputing some of the framing and reporting. Taibbi responds to FBI communication and press releases, and further shares internal documents related to FBI and “other government agency” correspondence.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles9)
10. How Twitter Rigged the COVID Debate, Dec 26, 2022

Summary: David Zweig illustrates how Twitter 1.0 reduced the visibility of true but perhaps inconvenient COVID information, and discredited doctors and other experts who disagreed.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles10)
11 and 12.

How Twitter Let the Intelligence Community In, Jan 3, 2023

Summary: Twitter 1.0 responds to governmental inquiry regarding some Russian-linked accounts, attempting to keep the governmental and press focus on rival Facebook.

Twitter and the FBI “Belly Button”, Jan 3 2023

Summary: Twitter 1.0 works diligently to resist acting on State Department moderation requests. In the end, it allowed the State Department to reach them via the FBI, which FBI agent Chan calls “the belly button” of the United States government.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles11)
13. Twitter and Suppression of COVID Vaccine Debate, Jan 9 2023

Summary: Scott Gottleib, a Pfizer board member, used his influence to suppress debate on COVID vaccines, including from the head of the FDA. Twitter 1.0 frets about the damage the effectiveness of natural immunity might have on vaccine uptake, and Twitter slaps a label on a key tweet former FDA commissioner Brett Giroir’s tweet touting the strength of natural immunity.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles13)
14. The Russiagate Lies One: The Fake Tale of Russian Bots and the #ReleaseTheMemo Hashtag, Jan 12 2023

Summary: On January 18th 2018, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes submitted a classified memo to the House Intelligence Committee listing abuses at the FBI in getting surveillance approval of Trump-connected figures. His memo also called into question the veracity and reliability of the Steele “Dossier.” #ReleaseTheMemo started trending, but Democrats attempted to discredit this by saying it was all being amplified by Russian bots and trolls, referencing Hamilton 68, a dashboard powered by the Twitter API (See Twitter Files #15, next in the series.) Though Nunes’ assertions would eventually be basically fully verified in a report by the Justice Department, a significant PR campaign was launched to discredit the memo, labeling it a “joke.” This TwitterFiles thread discusses Democrats’ desire to discredit the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag as being of Russian origin/amplification, and Twitter’s compliance with those requests. Note that there is heavy reliance on the “Hamilton 68 Dashboard” in many of these discussions, which is the subject of Twitter Files 15. The important bit: Twitter executives knew it was fraudulent from about 2017 onward, yet did nothing to discredit it in the media, allowing this DNC-message-benefitting sham to continue.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles14)
15. Move Over, Jason Blair: Twitter Files Expose Next Great Media Fraud (Hamilton 68 Dashboard), Jan 27 2023

Summary: This thread delves into the Hamilton 68 dashboard referenced in TwitterFiles 14 above. Twitter knew as early as October 2017 that it was simply pulling tweets from a curated list of about 650 accounts, and also knew that very few of those accounts were actually Russian. They knew that the media and Democrat officials were citing Hamilton 68 Dashboard as somehow credible. Though Twitter executive Yoel Roth tried several times to raise internal concern about the integrity of this tool, he was overruled within Twitter, and Twitter 1.0 never directly discredited this tool or explained how it worked.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles15)
16. Comic Interlude: A Media Experiment

Summary: Matt Taibbi notes how little mainstream media coverage there is of TwitterFiles revelations when they are damaging to the Democrats, but published numerous stories on Trump’s request to get Chrissy Tiegen removed from the platform. New revelations are shown about Maine Senator Angus King (D) calling for suspension of a slew of accounts for spurious reasons, and Representative Adam Smith (D)’s staff request to stop “any and all search results” related to certain keywords. Taibbi notes how the mainstream media has utterly ignored the Schiff requests and what it says about the First Amendment risks presented by government-big-tech cooperation.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles16)
17. New Knowledge, the Global Engagement Center, and State-Sponsored Blacklists

Summary: Taibbi reports on an effort by “DFRLab,” an entity funded by the “Global Engagement Center”, a shadowy part of the US federal government, to deplatform a bunch of people. The list of 40,000+ people the GEC/DFRLab attempted to get deplatformed under the guise that they were “paid employees or possibly volunteers” of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the list included lots of everyday Americans. Taibbi characterizes these requests as “State Sponsored Blacklists,” and from the data shared, it’s rather hard to challenge that provocative label. GEC denies it uses US tax dollars to try to get US citizens deplatformed, but the list clearly included Americans. Taibbi explores the requests in detail, some internal discussion which resulted, and lets the reader ponder what these requests suggest about government stances toward free speech, and the “weaponization” of the word “disinformation” for political aims. (For me, I continue to ask — would we know any of this had Elon Musk not purchased Twitter?)

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles17)
18. Statement to Congress

Summary: On March 9 2023, Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger testified before Congress about the network of third parties the federal government has been involved in paying, which in turn were serving up blacklist requests to Twitter.

Michael Shellenberger details it in this 68-page testimony to Congress.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles18)
19. The Great COVID-19 Lie Machine

Summary: The Stanford Virality Project (VP) was involved in the flagging and push-to-censor several threads and accounts writing “true but inconvenient to the narrative” stories surrounding COVID-19, such as the strength of natural immunity, the fact that the vaccination does not stop the spread, or the existence actual, true adverse vaccination side-effects. It appeared to have the full support from within the US government. Taibbi documents how the narrative became more important than what the facts were saying at the time, how the Stanford Virality Project seemed more interested in narrative enforcement and speech suppression than in the principles of the first amendment.

Discussion: (#TwitterFiles19)
Complete List of “Twitter Files” Threads


MT: Matt Taibbi, Racket News: @mtaibbi

MS: Michael Shellenberger, Michael Shellenberger on Substack: @shellenbergermd

BW: Bari Weiss, The Free Press, @bariweiss

LF: Lee Fang, The Intercept, @lhfang

AB: Alex Berenson, Alex Berenson on Substack, @alexberenson

DZ: David Zweig, The New Yorker, New York Times, Wired, @davidzweig

Congressional Hearings

March 9, 2023: Primary subject – federal involvement in censorship
February 8, 2023: Primary subject – former employee testimony, Hunter Biden laptop

Meta-Story: Behind the Scenes, In the Authors’ Words

Our Reporting at Twitter, Bari Weiss, The Free Press, December 15 2022

Interview with Matt Taibbi, Russell Brand:

Financial Systems Come for Your Free Expression: Don’t let them.

I’ve been a PayPal customer for more than a decade, but closed my account last week. 2022 has shown glimpses of what a social credit system might look like in America. Decentralized, yet singular in ideology.

My local bagel store, barbershop and dry cleaner now only accept cashless transactions. Ubiquitous touchscreen displays and tap-to-pay checkouts now happily whisk customers through the line. Cashless transactions have been a boon for customer, employee (more tips!) and retailer alike. Mostly, I love it.

But with it has come unprecedented information flow on who we are, and increased temptation by platform providers to start monitoring who can be in their club and who cannot be.

While there isn’t yet any grand centralized design of a social credit system along the lines of what the Chinese Communist Party operates, I cannot help but worry that we are assembling the ideal toolset for ideological enforcement, monitoring and control should someone, some day, wish to network it all together.

Does that sound alarmist? Consider the overall trajectory of these recent stories:

October, 2022: PayPal Attempts to Fine Customers for What it Deems “Harmful” Ideas

On October 7th 2022, PayPal published amendments to its Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which would have granted the payment provider legal authority to seize $2,500 from customers’ bank accounts for every single violation of what it deemed the spreading of “harmful” or “objectionable” information.

The determination of whether something is “harmful”, misleading or “objectionable” would come at PayPal’s sole discretion. These changes were set to go into effect on November 3rd, 2022, but were quietly retracted. PayPal only explained their policy reversal via emails to a few news outlets on October 8th; remarkably, you still cannot find any commentary about this episode on their Twitter feed.

What is harmful misinformation? Well, that’s subjective. We might all agree that businesses that explicitly promote murder shouldn’t be on the platform. But then it starts to get trickier. What if you believe the path of least overall harm was to reopen schools sooner? Or let vaccination be an informed choice, and not a mandate? Is being pro-choice or pro-life more “harmful?” Depends on who is answering the question.

Anything deemed harmful or objectionable by PayPal would be subject to such a fine.

Let’s review several recent statements which were authoritatively deemed “harmful misinformation”:

  • “Prolonged school closure is a mistake. Learning loss will happen, suicide rates might increase. We need to reopen schools urgently.” (Misinformation in 2020, True today.)
  • “Vaccination does not in fact significantly slow spread of COVID-19 to others.” (Misinformation in 2020, True today.)
  • “Naturally-acquired immunity is as strong as immunity acquired through vaccination, if not stronger.” (Misinformation in 2020, True today.)
  • “COVID-19, the most significant public health crisis in our lifetime, might well have emerged from a lab accident.” (Misinformation in 2020, officially declared at least equally plausible by the US government today.)
  • “Hunter Biden’s laptop contained clear and troubling signs of influence peddling.” (Declared misinformation in 2020, yet now verified by New York Times, Washington Post and others.)
  • “For younger males, the risk of myocarditis from vaccination may actually exceed the hospitalization risk of COVID itself.” (Declared misinformation in 2020, yet backed by empirical evidence today.)

Within a brief span of just thirty months, each of these statements has gone from “misinformation” or “harmful-information” as vehemently declared by authorities and name-brand “fact checkers” to now-majority American and empirically-validated viewpoints.

Further, who is paying attention to these stealth changes to terms and conditions? It wasn’t the New York Times, The Verge, nor the Washington Post that brought this major policy change of PayPal’s to America’s attention. It came from the right, who have become the most vocal critics of a creeping state-corporate symbiosis which they call the “Blue Stack.” The Blue Stack includes progressive technocrats, corporate media, and ostensibly independent big tech firms which work to enforce an ideology that inevitably tilts leftward.

The blue stack presents America’s elite with something they’ve always craved but has been out of reach in a liberal democracy: the power to swiftly crush ideological opponents by silencing them and destroying their livelihoods. Typically, American cultural, business, and communication systems have been too decentralized and too diffuse to allow one ideological faction to express power in that way. American elites, unlike their Chinese counterparts, have never had the ability to imprison people for wrong-think or derank undesirables in a social credit system.

Zaid Jilani, The Blue Stack Strikes Back, Tablet

Were it not for Ben Zeisloft, writer for the right-wing website Daily Wire, the public would likely not have known about PayPal’s major policy shift. But once Zeisloft’s piece hit (New PayPal Policy Lets Company Pull $2,500 From Users’ Accounts If They Promote ‘Misinformation’ | The Daily Wire), it caught fire on social media. And PayPal was forced into crisis-response mode, as the unwelcome press and cancellations started pouring in.

This wasn’t misinformation. PayPal’s new policy stated precisely as Zeisloft had identified. #CancelPayPal quickly started trending on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. The proposed AUP changes are now gone from PayPal’s website, but here’s what it said on the web archive for October 27, 2022:

And here’s what it said after being as of November 11, 2022:

The company’s former CEO, David Marcus, blasted PayPal on Twitter, saying “It’s hard for me to openly criticize a company I used to love and gave so much to. But @PayPal’s new AUP goes against everything I believe in. A private company now gets to decide to take your money if you say something they disagree with.”, he wrote on Saturday.

PayPal handled this PR crisis very poorly. While they walked it back, they only did so via private emails to publications like Snopes, which dutifully penned “No, PayPal Isn’t Planning to Fine Users $2.5K for Posting Misinfo.” Snopes fails to clearly state that yes, PayPal indeed had.

And PayPal executives have yet to clearly explain to customers how this AUP change even arose. It all gives one the impression that the only “error” with this policy rollout is that someone skeptical noticed it. Their main Twitter handle, @paypal, was and still is silent on the rollout and stealthy walk-back. They reached out one-on-one with a few media organizations to state that it was an error, but they didn’t apprise the public. They didn’t explain how such an “error” could make it onto their corporate website.

October, 2022: JP Morgan Chase Summarily Closes Kanye West’s Accounts

I’ve never been a fan of Kanye “Ye” West’s music, erratic persona, nor many of his MAGA-political views. And his recent clearly antisemitic statements, deserve condemnation. I think they’re abhorrent.

Yet I’m also unsettled by JP Morgan Chase, Inc. summarily indicating they are closing his bank accounts based on his recent speech.

On the plus side, they’ve given him thirty days’ notice.

I admit on this I’m conflicted — I’m fine with this specific decision, but not what it says about the age we are now it. It is in effect a major bank saying you need to not only be a customer in good standing, but not stray from what its executives think are the norms of good speech. Are they saying it’s not just the bank’s services that set their brand, it’s the collective words and deeds of its customers?

Something feels new here.

Have corporate banking giants been arbiters of what we can and cannot say in our private lives? Do we want them to be? They’re private companies, after all, but who expected investment banks of all entities to be the enforcers of what they perceive to be social acceptability?

It feels absurd for bankers, of all people, to be America’s moral compass. Do you consider bankers to be America’s new home for ethicists, who will be able to determine what is and is not societally righteous?

February, 2022: GoFundMe Deplatforms “My Body, My Choice” Truckers

GoFundMe is the #1 marketplace and payment processor for fundraisers. As you may recall, the Canadian truckers who objected to that nation’s vaccine mandate headed en masse to Ottawa to protest the government’s mandate via what they termed a “Freedom Convoy.”

After raising over $10 million through GoFundMe, from people around Canada and the rest of the world, on February 4th 2022, executives at GoFundMe unilaterally decided to lock the truckers’ fundraising account. Further, in their initial statement, GoFundMe signaled they would distribute those funds to charities of their own choosing. “Given how this situation has evolved, no further funds will be distributed directly to the organizers of Freedom Convoy,” GoFundMe wrote about the decision. “We will work with the organizers to send all remaining funds to trusted and established charities verified by GoFundMe.”

After massive outcry, GoFundMe provided an update and said that they would instead refund donations. Many noticed their initial action and found it indicative of who they are. #BoycottGoFundMe made the rounds on social media for weeks.

Critics are right to point out that GoFundMe has hosted numerous fundraisers for Antifa, CHOP/CHAZ and other protest groups — even those around whom violence has occasionally happened — without cancelation or threats of unilateral fund-seizure. You can see just a few of them by searching PayPal’s site.

[Editorial note: I have stated my own views on vaccination: — I’m in favor of it personally and for most older demographics especially, but believe it to be a personal choice. It is now clear that vaccination does not measurably nor durably reduce spread (one such study here, others corroborate), I think vaccination should be an informed choice. I am firmly opposed to COVID vax mandates.]

PayPal, GoFundMe and JP Morgan Chase are each private companies, and have every legal right to set their own terms and conditions of use. But look also what’s happening at the governmental level.

August, 2022: Massive Increase to IRS budget, Considering Lowering Reporting Threshold to $600

In 1972, the Bank Secrecy Act started requiring banks to report deposits of $10,000 or more (in 1970 dollars.) Together with adjustments made by The Patriot Act in 2002, banks need to report to state and local authorities all deposits or withdrawals of $10,000 or more. (Even multiple transactions broken up into smaller pieces are tracked, and known as “structured transactions,” and that in and of itself is illegal.)

More recently, in 2021, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and others started advocating for lowering the threshold to $600. This hasn’t yet been adopted, but it’s being strongly advocated. With inflation, $600 is the new $500, so essentially most critical expenditures, like rent, furniture, car purchases, healthcare, travel and more are on the radar.

We often hear about “87,000 IRS Agents” authorized by the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, but really what the Act includes is a massive $79 billion budgetary expansion of the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS has every incentive and desire to start wiring in end-to-end tracking of cashless transactions.

Should the US want to pursue a social credit system along the lines of the Chinese state, all that really will be needed is the “right” lawmakers to authorize it doing so.

Republican Rep. Jefferson Van Drew has introduced HR 5475, known as the Banking Privacy Act, to stop the Biden Administration’s proposal, which has been referred to the House Financial Services Committee. Should the Republicans win control of the House, it’s possible this will be taken-up.

Of course, as the old saw goes, if you’re not doing anything illegal, you have nothing to worry about. After seeing the way COVID was and is handled, and the creeping power of what writer Zaid Jilani calls the Blue Stack, do you still have that confidence?


Fast-forward the videotape, and it is plain that without new regulation, we are fast headed to ideological groupthink being enforced by the financial world, who are of course also susceptible to the whims of government leaders. Consolidation and a pandemic-accelerated move to a cashless society are making a social credit system much easier to snap-in some day.

True, these actions are mostly the work of free enterprise. Companies aren’t state-controlled in America the way they are in China, and they are free to devise their own legal terms and conditions. We consumers are free to opt in or opt out. No one has to use PayPal, GoFundMe, JP Morgan Chase, Twitter or Facebook for that matter. I’m not aware of any of these activities being illegal.

But we need to pause a moment and recognize how a cashless society with higher concentrations of information flow and money are extremely tempting components for regulators and authoritarians on America’s political flanks. It’s a far cry from the local savings account that was largely agnostic to your speech.

Increasingly, outside groups, state and local governments and employees from within are pressuring banks, big technology companies and other corporations to take manifestly political/ideological stances, and expel people for wrongthink. Our massive migration toward a cashless society makes this easier.

That’s all fine, you might say, “I support Canada’s vax mandate for truckers, I think Kanye West is reprehensible that JP Morgan has every right to de-bank him from their system, and I think think the IRS’s investment in tracking every $600 will inure to much greater revenue to US coffers.”

But recognize that these monitoring tools and platforms themselves are entirely agnostic tools; their application merely depends upon who is in power. And that can change at any election.

So it’s an important exercise to take a moment to imagine the power which you may now applaud in the hands of your worst ideological foe. Are you still comfortable with how this is all trending?

For me, though I love technology and the convenience it offers, these trends to include speech and behavior in whether people can participate in a platform start to fill me with unease, especially when they are phrased in such a subjective way. After more than two decades as a customer, I closed my PayPal account last week. If you’d like to close your account, you can do it in a few clicks as I explain on Twitter.

And while I’m still fine with debit and credit cards, I’m beginning to suspect this sense of ease might not last forever. It only takes VISA or Mastercard to say “we will fine our customers for harmful misinformation.” For these and other reasons, this long-time advocate of technology is now becoming reacquainted with check-writing. I’m not ready to switch back to paper just yet, but it can’t hurt to re-learn how it worked in the 70’s.

Introducing Local Headlines, Updated Every 15 Minutes

I’ve built a news and commentary aggregator for Seattle. Pacific Northwest headlines, news and views, updated every 15 minutes. is now live in beta.

Its purpose is to let you quickly get the pulse of what Seattleites are writing and talking about. It rolls up headlines and commentary from more than twenty local sources from across the political spectrum.

It indexes headlines from places like Crosscut, The Urbanist, Geekwire, The Stranger, Post Alley, Publicola,, City Council press releases, Mayor’s office press releases, Q13FOX, KUOW, KOMO, KING5, Seattle Times, and more. It’s also indexing podcasts and videocasts from the Pacific Northwest, at least those focused on civic, community and business issues in Seattle.

Seattle isn’t a monoculture. It’s a vibrant mix of many different people, many communities, neighborhoods, coalitions and voices. But there are also a lot of forces nudging people into filtered silos. I wanted to build a site which breaks away from that.

Day to day, I regularly hit a variety of news feeds and listen to a lot of different news sources. I wanted to make that much easier for myself and everyone in the city. is a grab-a-cup-of-coffee site. It is designed for browsing, very intentionally, not search. Click on the story you’re interested in, and the article will open up in a side window. It focuses on newsfeeds which talk about civic and municipal issues over sports, weather and traffic.

I’ll consider a success if it saves you time catching up on local stories, or introduces you to more voices and perspectives in this great city.

How it works

There are so many interesting and important voices out there, from dedicated news organizations like The Seattle Times to more informal ones like neighborhood blogs. I wanted a quick way to get the pulse of what’s happening. Seattlebrief pulls from the RSS feeds of more than twenty local sites, from all sides of the political spectrum: news sites, neighborhood blogs, municipal government announcements, and activist organizations. The list will no doubt change over time.

Many blog sites and news organizations support Really Simple Syndication (RSS) to publish their latest articles for syndication elsewhere. For instance, you can find Post Alley’s RSS feed here. RSS is used to power Google News and podcast announcements, among other things.

RSS is a bunch of computer code which tells aggregation sites: “here are the recent stories,” usually including a photo thumbnail, author information, and description. Seattlebrief uses this self-declared RSS feed, currently from over 20 sources in and around Seattle. It regularly checks what’s new. Another job then fetches each page and “enriches” these articles with the social sharing metadata that is used to mark up the page for, say, sharing on Facebook or Twitter. 

Think of it as a robot that simply goes out to a list of sites and fetches the “social sharing” info for each of them, then puts them in chronological order (by way of publication date) for you. The list of sites Seattlebrief uses will no doubt change over time.


Over at Post Alley, where I sometimes contribute, there was a writers’ room discussion about the Washington Post’s popular “Morning Mix” series. Morning Mix highlights interesting/viral stories around the web.

Sparked by that idea, I wanted to build a way to let me browse through the week’s Seattle-area headlines and commentary more easily. So I built Seattlebrief.

I’d welcome any key sources I’ve missed. Right now, they must have an RSS feed. And regrettably, some important/thoughtful voices like KUOW have long ago decommissioned their RSS feeds. I’m exploring what might be possible there.

Drop me a note.

I’d love it if you checked out, and let me know your thoughts.

Open Letter to Seattle City Council Regarding Bill 120247 (Diversion and City Attorney’s Office)

The council is trying to place unprecedented restrictions on the City Attorney’s office, without even knowing what the most important outcome metrics are of the approach it is demanding.

Correction since publication: A deeply civically informed friend noted privately to me that Council’s proposed action on Monday relates to pre-filing of charges (i.e., whether to decline or file charges), not post-filing diversion programs such as LEAD. This is despite the fact that the Bill, 120247, mentions LEAD multiple times. My friend’s clarification is a very important distinction, and one I misunderstood. This rushed Council bill has almost nothing to do with LEAD specifically as a program; and this should be considered when reading the original note below. But it doesn’t obviate the essential point: Council is setting up historic new constraints on the City Attorney — likely tying funding to decisions to decline/file/divert. This despite the fact that they do not seem to demand transparent, regular quarterly reporting on the most important metric (recidivism) for our biggest diversion program.

They are clearly setting up constraints for the City Attorney to dictate how big a role they want prosecution or credible threats of prosecution (broadly) to play in our justice system. At the same time, they seem utterly incurious about the hard comparative metrics of the most significant and highest-profile non-prosecution diversion investment and tradeoffs we’ve made to date. Ideologically, many Councilmembers are committed to further reduction of prosecution of low-level offenses, and they no longer have a City Attorney who vehemently agrees in all cases. Such decisions — to prosecute alleged offenders or divert them into other non-prosecutorial programs — have always been the role of the City Attorney, and should remain so. That none of us — neither the public nor City Council — actually know the annual change in recidivism rates of our largest formalized diversion program participants on an ongoing transparent basis remains emblematic that the Council majority is driven more by ideological certitude than comparing what works and what doesn’t, and when. Perhaps Council can focus on first quantifying regular, transparent reporting metrics on such efforts before constraining what another department should do with respect to the prosecution-diversion tradeoff.

December 11, 2021

Dear Seattle City Council Members:

I have a simple question for you. What has been the recidivism rate of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program participants, for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 or 2021? You, the City Council, who repeatedly fund this program and laud its effectiveness, do not know. No one does, as the consultant report on LEAD clearly indicated. Perhaps it’s very effective at reducing repeat offenses. But perhaps it isn’t. Maybe it reduces recidivism for some kinds of offenses but not others. Maybe it robustly reduces recidivism for the young but not the old, or maybe the addicted but not the well. Or maybe it’s entirely the other way around. We don’t have the metrics to know.

Heavily aligned academic research and 2019 followup based on a snapshot of seven-year old data suggested LEAD did reduce recidivism in a 316-person cohort, compared to a synthetically modeled comparison group. But reality is different than modeling, and since that time, all kinds of parameters of the program have changed, including levels of law enforcement participation, consequences for veering from the program’s requirements, who is eligible for the program, program staffing, which offenses qualify, and much more. I fully acknowledge there is other evidence directionally supporting diversion programs, and that’s great. I do believe such programs can work well in certain circumstances, and so does the new City Attorney, as she has repeatedly made clear.

But shouldn’t we know for sure where it’s effective, year by year, and where it’s not?

Even though you do not even know Seattle’s recidivism numbers, or when specifically LEAD clearly works to reduce recidivism and when it doesn’t, you’re clearly setting up new constraints on decisions which used to be under the purview of the City Attorney’s office. Even more astonishingly, you don’t even insist that such diversion programs which you wish another city branch to favor report overall participant recidivism quarterly as a requirement for continued funding.

Is there any more important metric than recidivism for whether such programs deliver for the community compared to, say, criminal prosecution, mandated treatment or drug court?

This coming Monday, in a rushed vote, you will be deciding to place new reporting — and likely commensurate funding — restrictions on the new, incoming City Attorney, which you never have done before.

Prosecutorial discretion is up to… the prosecutor. Your appalling decision here is a clear attempt to hamstring the duly elected City Attorney before she has even taken office. You have an ideology, and you want it enacted, regardless of whether we have clear evidence in Seattle that it’s the best way to reduce repeat offenses, or when and where.

The City Council’s fast track bill to be voted on Monday subjects City Attorney Elect Ann Davison to unprecedented City Council oversight. In the 100-year history of the City Attorney’s office no previous (male) attorney has faced this kind of pre-emption of their powers.

The bill goes against the voice of the voters, who voted Pete Holmes and his policies out. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and her decriminalization policies were also voted down. The people have spoken. Some on the City Council may disagree, but you are supposed to represent the wishes of your constituents.

At a minimum, you owe the citizens clear understanding that the heavy emphasis on diversion you continue to insist upon actually does make neighborhoods safer. The research that is trotted out to justify this is based on data that is now more than seven years old. Program parameters have changed dramatically, including who participates, what criteria is used, what interventions are used, what follow-up is done, and more. Yet you, the City Council, cannot even concretely report to the citizens the most important metric for this program: the recidivism rates for the program participants.

As the Seattle Times put so clearly: “The city attorney, not the council, is elected to handle misdemeanor cases in Seattle. Yet the bill would impose the council’s ideas about which cases go to courts and which are diverted into community programs.

Voters elected Davison to get on top of the nearly 4,000 cases that Pete Holmes allowed to accumulate without prosecution. Let her do her job, figure out whether LEAD works and where with actual data (not just clever story-based marketing), and focus on the many other urgent tasks of the SCC. At a bare minimum, if you are so fond of the diversion program, don’t you owe it to constituents to know the recidivism results? Start there.


Lewis touts new report on JustCARE program… but maybe he shouldn’t. (UPDATED) (, with link to consultant’s report on LEAD

Seattle Times:

Seattle City Council’s power play undermines City Attorney-elect Ann Davison | The Seattle Times

Sent to:,,,,,,,,,


Ann Davison’s Email to Council this week:

May be an image of 4 people

Twitter’s New CEO and Freedom of Speech

What does the changing of the guard at Twitter suggest about free speech online?

This first appeared in Seattle’s Post Alley on December 9th, 2021

On its face, Jack Dorsey’s resignation as CEO of Twitter last week was just another rearrangement of the Silicon Valley furniture, albeit an outsized one, given Dorsey’s iconic stature. At a different level though, the move opened a new chapter in the debate about social media platforms, regulation, the future of the internet, and ultimately how we define and allow free speech.

As the Jack Dorsey era of Twitter Inc. came to a close, a ten-year Twitter veteran, Parag Agrawal, formerly its Chief Technical Officer, took the helm. Agrawal’s appointment portends a faster-moving company. But it may also signal an even more algorithmically filtered, boosted and suppressed conversation in the years to come.

How so?

Imagine you had an algorithm which could instantly calculate the health or danger of any given tweet or online conversation. For instance, it might look in on a substantive, respectful debate amongst career astrophysicists and assign positive scores of 4852325 and climbing, but evaluate a hateful, racist tirade at -2439492, trending lower and lower.

Wouldn’t such an algorithm be something you could use to make Twitter conversations healthier? Couldn’t it also be used to block bad actors and boost desired, good-faith discussion, thereby reducing harm and promoting peace? The man who once championed this tantalizing, risky idea within Twitter is its new Chief Executive Officer, Parag Agrawal.

So what, you say. But therein lies a fierce and philosophical battle raging about how free speech should be defined, measured, protected and even suppressed online.

Twitter has become the dominant tool for the world’s real-time news consumers and purveyors — which in a sense, is all of us. It has been especially useful for journalists, particularly in the understanding of and reporting upon real-time news events. It’s become highly influential in politics and social change. And as a result, the CEO of the Internet’s real-time public square is far more than a tech executive. Ultimately, he and the people he appoints, pays, and evaluates, cast the deciding vote on consequential questions, such as: what news, political and scientific discussion are allowed to be consumed? What are we allowed to know is happening right now? Who determines what can be expressed, and what cannot? What gets boosted, and who gets booted?

Dorsey stepped down via an email to his team on November 29, 2021, posting it to where else but his Twitter account. He wrote that being “founder-led” can be a trap for a company, and he wanted Twitter to grow beyond him. He expressed “bone deep” trust and confidence in successor and friend, Agrawal.

But there were likely other reasons behind his decision too. Dorsey’s been public about wanting to spend more time promoting Bitcoin; he’s called being a Bitcoin missionary his “dream job.” There’s also the small matter that his other day-job has been running Block Inc., (formerly known as Square), the ubiquitous small-business payments processor, which is now worth more than $80 billion and employs more than 5,000. Adding to the incentive: Dorsey also owns a much bigger personal stake in Block than he does in Twitter.

A final, less discussed contributor might be simmering investor dissatisfaction. Twitter’s stock price is languishing in the mid $40’s, the same trading range it had eight years ago:

Snapshot taken December 9th, 2021

And its user numbers, while growing, have not shown the rapid growth many investors expect. Twitter’s user growth has been small compared to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Activist investors Elliott Management and its ally Silver Lake Partners own significant stakes in Twitter, and they pushed for new leadership and faster innovation. According to Axios, while Elliott Management resigned its board seat in 2020, it demanded and got two things in return: new management, and a plan to increase the pace of innovation. Also looming large are regulator moves, debates over user safety and privacy, and controversy over moderation.

Agrawal has impressive technical chops. He earned a BS in Computer Science and Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), then earned a PhD in Computer Science at Stanford University in 2012. He’s worked in brief stints at Microsoft Research, AT&T Labs and Yahoo before joining Twitter in 2011, rising through the ranks over ten years. He’s led their machine learning efforts, and he’s been intimately involved in a research project called “BlueSky,” which is a decentralized peer to peer social network protocol.

Agrawal has moved quickly, shaking up Twitter’s leadership team. Head of design and research Dantley Davis is stepping down — the scuttlebutt is that Dantley demonstrated an overly blunt and caustic management style that rubbed too many employees the wrong way. Head of engineering Michael Montano is also departing by year’s end. Agrawal’s lines of authority are now more streamlined; he has expressed a desire to impose more “operational rigor.”

“We want to be able to move quick and make decisions, and [Agrawal] is leading the way with that,” said Laura Yagerman, Twitter’s new head of corporate communications. Agrawal’s swift change in key leadership positions suggests that Dorsey didn’t leave entirely of his own volition.

While Dr. Agrawal brings deep technical experience to the role of CEO, most outside observers are focused intently on his viewpoints regarding free speech and censorship.

Every day, voters, world leaders, journalists and health officials turn to Twitter to exchange ideas. As I write this today, the public square is pondering the dangers (or potentially nascent optimistic signs) of a new COVID variant. Foreign policy twitter is abuzz about troops massing on the Ukraine’s border and China’s activities in both Hong Kong the China Sea. Law Enforcement Twitter is asking the public for crowdsourced detective work on the latest tragic homicides.

What they all have in common is this: these stories often come to the world’s attention via Twitter. Twitter decides which types of speech should be off-limits on its platform. They say who gets booted, and what gets boosted. In other words, they have a big role in defining the collective Overton Window of online conversation. Ultimately, Twitter’s moderation policies, algorithms and (for now at least) human editorial team decide what can and cannot be said, what gets amplified, and what gets shut down.

Further, our world increasingly conflates the concepts of internet “consensus” and truth. So how do we go about deciding what information is true, and what is gaslighting? Which sources will Twitter deem “credible” and which untrustworthy? What labels will get slapped on your tweets?

The CEO of Twitter has an enormously powerful role in determining what does and doesn’t come to the public’s attention, what catches fire and what does not, and who is anointed with credibility. Agrawal knows this intimately; it’s been a big part of his work for the past several years. Twitter’s servers process nearly one billion tweets every day. And usage has swelled to nearly 220 million daily active users, with few signs of slowing:

More important, perhaps, is the highly influential nature of these users. Seth Godin called such influencers “sneezers of the Idea Virus.” Watch any cable TV news channel for more than fifteen minutes, and you’re likely to encounter someone talking about what someone has tweeted. Indeed a very high number of politicians, journalists, celebrities, government and policy officials use Twitter regularly, either to spread, consume or evaluate information. Twitter’s moderation policies can act quickly to fan an ember, or snuff it out.

During Dorsey’s tenure, Twitter came under withering fire for too-hastily suppressing and blocking views. It’s also come under fire for the opposite reason — not being fast enough to block and remove misinformation (for instance “Gamergate,” and later “QAnon” and communication surrounding January 6th.)

Most recently, concern over Twitter’s moderation policies and blocking/amplification/suppression been fiercest from civil libertarians, the right, and center-right. Among the examples:

  • In October 2020, just weeks before the presidential election, Twitter blocked the New York Post for weeks for its explosive scoop on Hunter Biden’s laptop. Twitter first said the ban was because the materials were hacked, though to this day, there is no definitive proof they were obtained that way. Subsequent reporting by Politico this year independently confirmed the authenticity of several of those emails. The New York Post was prevented from participating on Twitter for weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Dorsey later apologized for this blocking, calling it a “total mistake,” though he wouldn’t say who made it.
  • Twitter locked the account of the Press Secretary of the United States for retweeting that Biden laptop story.
  • In October 2020, Twitter suspended former Border Patrol Commissioner Mark Morgan for tweeting favorably about the border wall.
  • Twitter temporarily banned and then permanently suspended Donald Trump, a sitting president of the United States, citing his repeated violations of terms of service, specifically its Glorification of Violence policy. Yet Twitter does not ban organizations like the Taliban, nor does it suspend world leaders who threaten the nation of Israel’s existence; they generally only remove individual tweets.

Even before several of these incidents above, in a 2018 interview at NYU, Dorsey admitted that Twitter’s conservative employees often don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions. And he conceded both that Twitter is often gamed by bad-faith actors, and that he’s not sure that Twitter will ever build a perfect antidote to that gamification. In 2020, a massive hack exposed the fact that Twitter has administrative banning and suppression tools, which among other things allow their employees to prevent certain topics from trending, and which also likely block users and/or specific tweets from showing up in “trending” sections and/or searches.

As Twitter’s influence rose, these decisions caused consternation among some lawmakers, Dorsey was pressed to sit before multiple Congressional hearings, in which he’s asked about these instances and more:

One big issue is “bots,” (short for robots), which are automated programs which use Twitter’s platform and act as users. They amplify certain memes by posting content to Twitter, liking and retweeting certain content, replying affirmatively to things they are programmed to agree with, or negatively to things they are not, etc. They are a great example of how Twitter, in its “wild west” initial era, often let its platform be manipulated.

Twitter’s initial response was slow; one has to remember that bots help amplify usage numbers which in turn might help create a feeling of traction (and or ad-ready eyeballs.) But bots are often designed with malicious intent to skew the public’s perception of what’s catching fire, or to add credibility to false stories. Since 2016, Twitter has gotten more aggressive about cleaning out bots, and in 2018 greatly restricted use of their application programming interface (API.) Earlier this year, after years of hedging, Twitter finally decided to take aggressive action to de-platform the conspiracy fringe group QAnon, suspending 70,000 accounts related to that conspiracy movement, after the January 6th riot at the United States Capitol. Dorsey regretted that this ban was done “too late.”

The justification for these interventions often centers around harm. Or perhaps more accurately, it centers around what Twitter’s human and algorithmic decisionmakers judge in the snapshot moment to be “harmful.”

What’s Agrawal’s attitude about free speech? While some civil libertarians and commentators on the political right initially cheered Dorsey’s departure, that enthusiasm quickly cooled. That’s because Agrawal has in the past signaled very clearly that he believes Twitter’s censorship policy should not be about free speech, but about reducing harm and even improving peace. You can get an idea for Agrawal’s philosophy in his extended remarks with MIT Technology Review in November 2018:

“[Twitter’s] role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation. The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed. One of the changes today that we see is speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard. The scarce commodity today is attention. There’s a lot of content out there. A lot of tweets out there, not all of it gets attention, some subset of it gets attention. And so increasingly our role is moving towards how we recommend content and that sort of, is, is, a struggle that we’re working through in terms of how we make sure these recommendation systems that we’re building, how we direct people’s attention is leading to a healthy public conversation that is most participatory.” (Emphasis added.)

In 2010, he tweeted:

The double-negative is a bit cryptic, but one interpretation of this is that book banning might be not only acceptable but relatively desirable if it increases societal peace. This sentiment is most definitely not aligned with those who believe, as I do generally, that the best antidote to speech with which you disagree is more and better speech.

As one wag put it, “I’ll be happy to ban all forms of hate speech, as long as you let me define what it is. Deal?”

More of Agrawal’s outlook can be discerned from his November 2018 interview with MIT Technology Review. For some time from 2015 to about 2018, he and the rest of the technical team at Twittter put great effort into determining whether the health of any given public conversation can be scored algorithmically. But thus far, that effort appears to have yielded disappointment. Yet Agrawal seems undaunted in this quest.

Agrawal’s Holy Grail of algorithmic scoring of the “health” or potential “harm” of a public conversation isn’t yet fully possible. Thus, they employ humans to curate discussion, and block, ban, suppress and promote (through sorting) certain expressions over others. Now, given that human editors are expensive, Twitter focuses them on a few subjects. Agrawal specifically names pandemic response and election integrity as two areas which he deems most appropriate for such intervention. Yet let’s keep in mind he also clearly believes that automated algorithmic “scoring” of healthy conversation is both possible and desirable.

Our approach to it isn’t to try to identify or flag all potential misinformation. But our approach is rooted in trying to avoid specific harm that misleading information can cause.

Dr. Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s new CEO, MIT Technology Review November 2018

While controlling discussion to promote peace might seem to be an unalloyed good, it’s not at all clear that a harm-reducing, peace-promoting Internet public square is also necessarily a truth-promoting one. For one thing, truth doesn’t care about its impact. And it isn’t always revealed right away. Our understanding and interpretation of facts change over time. It seems increasingly often that things which we once “knew” to be certain are suddenly revealed to be quite different. Would such an algorithm optimize for the wrong things, leaving us less informed in the process? These and other conundra confront Twitter’s new CEO, who took office last week.

In a way, Agrawal’s appointment as Twitter CEO can be seen as an important waypoint in the Internet’s transformation from techno-libertarianism to a much more progressive worldview with a willingness to use a heavier hand. Anti-establishment civil libertarians used to typify many Internet and tech leaders’ outlook. Yet quite steadily over the past decade, a progressive worldview has grown dominant. While one side values free speech and civil liberties as paramount values, the other believes societal peace, equity, and least “harm” trump other goals. And for some, if free speech needs to be sacrificed to achieve it, so be it. Throughout his tenure, Dorsey himself has shown elements of each philosophy.

Agrawal may be a technocrat progressive. In 2017, he donated to the ACLU so it could sue President Trump in 2017. He has also likened religion to a pyramid scheme:

Yet Agrawal it would be highly inaccurate to characterize Agrawal as a censorship extremist. He advocates more open access to Twitter’s archives through Application Programming Interfaces (API’s), and more third-party analysis of what’s discussed on the platform.

One hopeful sign is that Agrawal has already experienced his own “my old tweets have been taken greatly out of context” moment immediately after being made Twitter’s new CEO. Critics on the right seized on this October 26th 2010 tweet of his, suggesting it somehow demonstrates that he’s equating white people with racists:

But as he quickly explained, “I was quoting Asif Mandvi from The Daily Show,” noting that his intent was precisely the opposite. Agrawal was joking about the harm of stereotypes. He was of course not making a factual statement, but using sarcasm to make a larger point.

As someone who tends to side more with civil libertarians with respect to free speech, I hope he remembers that it was his ability to respond and clarify and respond with more speech which helped convey his true feelings and much more clearly convey the truth that went beyond the first 280 characters. Wasn’t it best for him that he could quickly dispel a controversy and continue to engage, and wasn’t banned due to some lower-level employee determining his first tweet caused harm under at least one subjective interpretation?

Perhaps the central conundrum is that content moderation is impossible to get perfectly “fair” or least-harm-imposing. No algorithm or human will be able to make the correct decision at every moment. Thus, guidelines need to exist which define an optimal content moderation policy. For that, you need the platform’s leader to define what should be optimized via such a policy. Truth? Liberty? Fairness? Viewpoint Diversity? Peace?

Back to the thought-exercise which started this piece. Would everyone score the “harm” of a given conversation the same way, or the credibility or intent of the speakers? Obviously, we wouldn’t. Algorithms — especially machine learning algorithms — are tremendously powerful, but they also can give an illusion of objective authority. In reality, they’re only as good as their data training and evaluation sets, and those evaluation sets have explicit goals. Each desirable metric chosen to optimize (Peace, Truth, Viewpoint Diversity, etc.) would yield very different algorithms. And the result would be very different content moderation, amplification and suppression policies.

Agrawal’s view will likely evolve, but for the moment, he appears to prioritize what he considers “healthy conversation” and avoidance of “harm.” It is how he actually defines health and harm which will be very important indeed. For it will determine what we know to be true, and from whom we hear.

Jack Dorsey’s resignation letter concludes with this statement: “My one wish is for Twitter Inc. to be the most transparent company in the world.”

That would be most welcome. But they have a very long way to go indeed. Godspeed, Dr. Agrawal.

New Book Argues That Our Approach to Homelessness Won’t Work

Why are west coast cities suffering through a seemingly intractable growth in homelessness? What can we learn from the relative successes of Amsterdam, Lisbon, Miami and even New York City?

This first appeared in Post Alley on November 22nd, 2021.

By the time you read the subtitle, “Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” you know that author Michael Shellenberger pulls no punches. He explores a vexing, urgent question: Why have San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland — wealthy, progressive cities each — experienced such intractable and rapidly-growing homelessness crises in the past decade? Why have each of these politically liberal, environmentally-conscious cities with enormous financial resources suffered worsening and intertwined crises of addiction, public encampment, needles and deteriorating public safety, and political gridlock — despite spending ever more?

It’s been more than six years since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness. That year, the King County One Night Count found 3,772 individuals living outside and unsheltered. In 2020, it had risen to 11,751 people experiencing homelessness, with 47% of those unsheltered. And, despite more than $1 billion spent on homelessness every year regionally according to the Puget Sound Business Journal and even more donated in affordable housing pledges by Jeff Bezos, Microsoft, and others, we still don’t feel much closer toward a model which works.

Released in October, San Fransicko has broken into the top three reads on Amazon in the Civics & Citizenship category. Though it focuses on the Bay Area, policies in Seattle are similar. Shellenberger indirectly asks the Seattle reader to consider whether the progressive policy approach — harm reduction, housing first, affordable housing, and a victim-centric lexicon — leads toward measurable progress? If not, will it ever?

Two decades ago, the author was a conventional progressive on these topics. Today, Shellenberger is criticizing progressive orthodoxy in the environment and homelessness. His 2020 treatise, Apocalypse Never, is a broadside against what he considers “climate alarmism.” In that book, Shellenberger advocates for more nuclear power and more technological and pragmatic approaches to environmental challenges, bringing data to the argument about which forms of energy can most efficiently reduce CO2 emissions.

San Francisco City Hall and city square. Photo from the Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2021

In San Fransicko Shellenberger takes on three of the most heavily-defended tenets of the west-coast approach toward homelessness.

First, he argues that homelessness is principally an addiction and mental health crisis masquerading as an affordability crisis. Put another way, and this is central to his thesis — it’s not primarily about affordability. To this assertion, he brings considerable data, showing how pure housing-only programs fail to reduce homelessness. He explains how public housing advocates have largely shut down much-needed investment in shelter.

He asks the reader to ponder whether growth in tents is at least in part because they’re the least-costly way to live with no rules, in proximity to drug markets and a community of users. And he names the ever-more addictive drugs doing increasing damage: first opioids, then heroin, fentanyl, and now a new and extremely addictive form of methamphetamine which brings with it much more frequent and lasting mental crises. Drug overdose deaths have hit a record high in the United States, with more than 100,000 dying in the past 12 months. Sam Quinones’ excellent piece in The Atlantic about this new methamphetamine echoes Shellenberger’s central thrust here.

Second, Shellenberger takes on “housing first,” the highly popular intervention policy in west coast cities which prioritizes secure housing and “barrier-free” (i.e., requirement-free) living. Once a fierce advocate for housing-first policies, the author is now convinced the policy momentum itself has overshadowed the ultimate goal. He walks the reader through Amsterdam’s history in policymaking, which once had similar barrier-free models, but has in the past decade adopted a much more empirically successful approach. The “Amsterdam Way” emphasizes earned housing and compassionate enforcement over the “housing first” model. Shellenberger dives in to study methodology to question several of the academic efforts which have claimed efficacy of housing-first.

In interviews subsequent to the book, he’s posed the thought exercise: “If someone who is addicted to methamphetamine is given $200, are they likely to voluntarily spend it on their own treatment, or more drugs?” Shellenberger’s point: if we believe it’s the latter, we’re saying the housing-first — which too often is housing-only — model won’t work.

Third, Shellenberger argues against city-only programs. He notes that in a mobile and free society, no city-specific approach would work in the absence of a broader regional or statewide strategy. He advocates the establishment of a new statewide agency, “Cal Psych,” to handle a broad range of mental wellness services.

The book is at its best detailing the success stories of other cities. Shellenberger holds up Amsterdam, Lisbon, New York City, and Miami as cities to consider as much better models than the failed west-coast models. The chapter “Let’s Go Dutch” focuses on Amsterdam, a city not that much bigger than San Francisco (or Seattle, for that matter), and makes a very strong case for adopting their policy slate. This includes earned housing based on entering treatment programs if addicted, a crackdown on open-air drug dealing, an individualized and well-coordinated plan for every individual, and ample social services.

In the 1980s, Amsterdam had major problems with open-air drug-dealing and homelessness. Crucially, Shellenberger argues, Amsterdam’s courts, service providers, and families helped coordinate an individualized plan for everyone, and linked permanent housing benefits to milestones along the way. That is, rather than housing-first, those addicted first get less-desirable government shelter, but must earn permanent housing. They rely upon family support when available, enforced bans on public encampment, and ample counseling and psychiatric care services.

There are no signs yet that San Francisco will change course. In July, Mayor London Breed pledged $1 billion to house the homeless, after the city experienced a surprise windfall driven in part by federal stimulus spending. District Attorney Chesa Boudin has decriminalized many misdemeanors, and there’s a strong push to reduce police budgets.

Seattle features prominently in a chapter called “Legalize Crime.” Shellenberger recounts the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in June of 2020 and the progressive wave of decriminalizing misdemeanor crimes. And he discusses the mismatch between progressive ideals and actual outcomes.

That people can and should be called upon to do more is central to Shellenberger’s thesis. A former progressive, Shellenberger describes a new, aggressively guarded belief system, which he calls “Victimology.” Such a doctrine plays a central role in discussion of the addiction and homelessness crises and the advancement and protection of failing dogmas. He argues that progressives have become far too invested in the idea that addicts are only victims with no obligation to a greater society, and that nothing can nor should be asked of any of them. In a related blog post, he explores this victimology through Moral Foundation Theory. Shellenberger argues that while espousing such a belief system may signal compassion, it rarely delivers it.

Does individual responsibility have a role in this urgent conversation? Do people experiencing homelessness and the larger community share mutual responsibilities? Shellenberger argues strongly: yes, they do.

The late neurologist, author and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote compellingly about the need for responsibility to balance liberty in any functioning society. Before his death, Frankl called specifically for a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast, to complement the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. There’s even a campaign for it. After you read San Fransicko, you might be inclined to rethink our approach toward homeless policymaking.

Post-note: There’s a good discussion with the author here:

Which Seattle candidate most agrees with you? Take the all-new Alignvote quiz.

Which candidate most agrees with you in the Seattle 2021 general election? Take the all-new Alignvote quiz to find out.

I’ve just released a brand new version of Alignvote, completely rewritten and updated for the 2021 November Seattle General Election:

There are four voter-candidate matchmakers for key Seattle races: Mayor, City Council 8, City Council 9, and City Attorney. And, assuming forums and questionnaires continue to develop in the race for King County Executive, there will likely be one for that race soon as well.

Are you just getting up to speed on some of the big issues in these races, and curious where the candidates stand on some key questions? Drop by Alignvote, and take the quiz. Then share it with your friends.

Questions are sourced from candidate forums, direct questions placed to the candidates, and their positions as outlined on their campaign websites, on-the-record statements and elsewhere.

Know any undecideds?

In a poll released today, some 65% of voters were undecided in the City Attorney race, and 27% were undecided for Mayor:

Here’s a sample question, for the Mayor’s race. This question was posed at a recent forum, and answered by both general election candidates. Which one do you agree with? You can move the “Importance” slider between seven values, from “irrelevant” to “essential.”
Example question from the Mayor’s race, which was asked in a recent forum

All candidates were notified last Thursday and invited to provide additional elaboration if they’d like.

New Features

  • The voter-candidate matchmaker is now embeddable on any website, and I’d be happy to have this embedded on your site or blog. If you have a news site or blog covering city politics or the Seattle election, grab the snippet of code to embed the Alignvote Quiz on your website.
  • There’s a new “Evidence” section at the end of the stack-rankings. That section will include links to relevant news stories, tweets, commentary and more which are directly related to the candidate’s own views on the question at hand. This will likely be growing between now and November. If you have relevant stories or links to include, jot a tweet or Direct Message to @alignvote on Twitter.
  • Easier administration. A great deal of the effort was put into easier administration on the back-end. I have rewritten the code entirely from Angular/Material to React/NextJS.

On Controversy and Bias

In the 2019 cycle, Alignvote delivered over 20,000 voter-candidate rankings, and certainly generated some controversy.

Alignvote measures the level of match between you and the eight candidates in the four races above. You and the candidate are answering the same question. Alignvote simply scores the distance, weighted by the importance that you assign on these questions. The candidate with the least overall distance, weighted by importance to you on each issue, comes out on top.

How are questions sourced? Of course, these aren’t the only questions which should matter to a voter, but they are ones where the candidates often have differing viewpoints and ones in which they have made their stances clear.

As for me, the guy behind this project, like all voters and writers, I have political views. I have expressed them here on my blog, and I will continue to do so. I am not unbiased. My own views may not match your own. This is true of any blogger, tweeter, activist-blogger, TV personality or mainstream journalist covering politics.

For what it’s worth, on political quizzes and by Gallup polling, I generally score as a centrist, and I have supported Democratic, Independent and Republican candidates with varying ideologies over the years. And, since it seems a highly relevant indicator to Seattleites, I’ve never voted for Trump.

But I also realize that the term “centrist” is a subjective label. I value great public schools, affordable and convenient transit options, help for those who need it, good and accountable government, green parks, limits on services for those who refuse to partner, transparent metrics for the public which funds services, more affordable housing inventory, better solutions for those experiencing mental health or substance use crises in their lives and improved health and environmental outcomes for all.

I think that’s in part because (a) some political writers/tweeters with relatively large followings really, really don’t like when policy tradeoff questions are framed in any other terms other than the favorable ones they prefer, and (b) many candidates like to “tack toward the center” in the general and therefore do not want to be pinned down in multiple-choice options. They want the freedom to be all things to all voters for a general election.

But leadership, including civic leadership, is often about tradeoffs. If there were solutions to long-term controversies that had easy “no cost” answers, they’d have been done by now.

I think voters deserve more clarity.

To be sure, the selection of any set of questions in any poll or survey or candidate forum can absolutely result in bias.

Controversial issues can be framed in a number of ways.

Alignvote simply shows the level of match between you and the candidates on the questions. There are many opportunities to hear open-ended answers to questions (interviews, forums, meet-and-greets and more.) By design, to help voters quickly identify closest-match-to-them, Alignvote relies upon closed-ended questions, where both you and the candidate must commit to one of the answers.

And Alignvote offers candidates an option to elaborate on why they chose the option they did. Campaigns were all emailed these questions for elaboration on Thursday, September 23rd, and I would be happy to put their elaborations in for voters to hear. (They should allow up to 72 hours for their elaborations to go live.)

Find it useful? Share it, and follow on social media.

I’m very gratified to hear directly from many of you that it’s been very helpful. It’s an entirely free civic project, and is not funded by any campaign or political organization — its very modest costs are solely funded by me.

If you like it, please share it with fellow Seattleites. Options include email, Twitter, Facebook, Nextdoor, Reddit and word of mouth. Or just jot me a follow on social media. You’ll find me at @stevemur and alignvote at @alignvote. And please vote in November!

photo credit: Nitish Meena

Candidate Questions for the 2021 Seattle Election: Homelessness, Compassion Seattle and Summary

Part III of my 3-part series featured in Post Alley about the big issues in the upcoming Seattle election. Today’s post: the city’s approach toward homelessness, and a summary of the key “slates”: the more Leftward Slate vs. the more Moderate slate.
If you or other voters are just coming up to speed on the big issues facing us with this election about the direction of our city, feel free to share this three-part series on zoning, crime and homelessness.

This is the third in a three-part series on issues defining the Seattle 2021 Election. In Part I, we looked at residential zoning and explained our methodology for this series. In Part II, we looked at misdemeanor crime. A final issue is their approach toward homelessness. Specifically, on August 25, I chose to ask them where they stood on the “Compassion Seattle” initiative, which was subsequently thrown out by legal decisions.

This series first appeared on Seattle’s Post Alley on September 3rd, 2021.

Question: Should the Charter of the City of Seattle be modified to simultaneously (a) require the city to allocate a fixed percentage of its budget and commit to specific, measurable actions that prioritize mental health and substance use disorder treatment support services, combined with (b) housing, and (c) if services and housing options are available, compel the city to remove encampments that pose health and safety risk?

A King County judge threw a giant curveball into this when she ruled on August 27 that the Compassion Seattle charter amendment is outside the bounds of what is permitted by the voter initiative process, striking it from the ballot; and Compassion Seattle’s attempted repeal has failed. The issue divides the two mayoral contenders: Bruce Harrell is on record supporting the Compassion Seattle Initiative and has recently affirmed support for its basic approach, and Lorena González opposes it as an unfunded mandate.

About the issue: “Compassion Seattle” is a voter initiative which would have amended the City Charter to require emergency housing (2,000 units within the first year of adoption), dedicate at least 12% of the City’s general fund revenues to address homelessness, and required the City to take action to ensure that parks, playgrounds, and public spaces remained clear of encampments as housing and services became available. Again, this proposed amendment is no longer on the ballot, given the upholding of the judge’s ruling.

Argument in favor: It’s been more than six years since the City declared a “state of emergency” on homelessness, and it’s clear that neither City Council or the mayor have been able to take effective action to reduce homelessness or keep encampments from growing and endangering public spaces. It’s time to make it an explicit legal requirement by enacting it into the City Charter. The coalition that produced this initiative includes a broad group of voices. Actions by the Council, such as defunding the Navigation teams that did outreach of clean up of encampments may have made the problem much worse. It’s time to find a new pathway forward by enacting this set of policy mandates into the City Charter. This charter amendment was born out of increasing frustration with city government’s ability to tackle homelessness.

Argument opposed: The King County Regional Homelessness Authority was only recently established, and we need to give it more time and resources to work, without overly constraining it with what must be done and when. A charter amendment is an awkward and unduly constraining way to enact such legislation.

Candidate Responses

Given the legally uncertain nature of the Compassion Seattle initiative at the time the question was posed, several campaigns declined comment, deferring to the Court process. Here are the responses in full:

Bruce Harrell, Candidate for Mayor

“While Compassion Seattle will no longer be on the ballot, I continue to support the initiative’s goals of dedicating significant resources to action on homelessness and to an increased urgency of addressing unsafe encampments in incompatible areas, so that we can get people off the streets, out of parks and playfields, and into housing with services. My administration will bring together service providers, homelessness advocates, housing experts, community leaders, nonprofit, business, labor and philanthropic organizations, and more to define a plan that meets our shared values, publish it so it’s widely available to the public, and get to work demonstrating real progress. Under our administration, we will publish the costs per unit, costs per person, all measurable outcomes and timetables and build trust by establishing a measurable plan and proof that we are spending public dollars efficiently and effectively.”

Kenneth Wilson, Candidate for City Council (Seat 8)

“I do not agree with a fixed budget allocation to housing and services. We cannot promote one bad idea with another. I would work to immediately support enforcement of existing laws and to eliminate encampments on public property. Allowing encampments exposed/outside and along the edges of roads, parks, and schools is not compassionate for the homeless or the City. My plan is to provide permanent pathways that deliver community value for their tax dollar investment and life-long opportunities for the homeless individuals through goal-oriented rehabilitation with a realistic 18 to 24 month transitional housing and job training that graduates them out of homelessness. (Please see KenForCouncil8 for written details.)”

Nikkita Oliver, Candidate for City Council (Seat 9)

“Charter Amendment 29, by determination of the Court, will NOT be on the 2021 General Election ballot. Charter Amendment 29, misleadingly called “Compassion Seattle,” is not a normal referendum, but a Charter amendment. Charter amendments usually cover governance issues, not policy. Charter Amendment 29 is/was an unfunded mandate that would NOT have rendered much, if any, permanent affordable housing and would have only required the City to give a little over 1% more towards services for our unhoused neighbors than it was already allocating. We need real solutions that address the root causes of the problem which, according to the Regional Homelessness Authority, are a lack of affordable housing and a lack of access to financial means and resources in our region. Marc Doans, the CEO of the Regional Homelessness Authority, states, ‘The driver of homelessness is economic.’”

Sara Nelson, Candidate for City Council (Seat 9)

“This question is sort of moot because the judge ruled this Charter amendment could not go on the ballot. My question is, what’s the plan now? We’re spending more and more money on our response to homelessness and the problem keeps getting worse, representing an utter humanitarian and policy failure on Council’s part. So, we need to stop doing what we’re doing now because it’s not working and Compassion Seattle’s proposal was at least an attempt to put some teeth into a course-correct. What I liked most about it was that it would’ve mandated a direct, Seattle funding stream for mental health and substance abuse treatment which is the most urgent missing piece of our response. Even more than housing, in my opinion, because there are lots of City-funded providers offering short-, medium-, and long-term housing options right now (and I do support the “Housing First” model).

“The ball’s now in Council’s court. We need to fundamentally restructure our response to the homelessness crisis and implement a model proven to work in other cities, centered on individualized case management and a real-time, online “command center” for service providers and City agencies to ensure continuity-of-care and help individuals get into the housing that meets their immediate needs. Right now, there’s zero coordination among providers and they don’t track the kind of housing and services individuals need or have been offered already. I’m not saying we have to toss out all our partnerships with providers, but we do need to incorporate more accountability measures to meet evidence-based outcomes. We must also ensure our parks are open and accessible to all. That’s the foundation of our Commons and simply ignoring encampments is a smokescreen for doing nothing to help people living there. This isn’t rocket science and we don’t have to recreate the wheel — we just have to have the political will to approach this challenge more effectively.”

Which Candidates Align With You?

If “yes, I favored the Compassion Seattle Initiative,” favor Bruce Harrell as mayor, and Sara Nelson and Kenneth Wilson for City Council.

If “no, I did not favor the Compassion Seattle Initiative,” favor Lorena González as mayor, and Nikkita Oliver and Teresa Mosqueda for City Council.

Concluding Reflection: Two Slates Seem Clearly Defined

Judging from both their direct responses to this three-part series as well as prior on-the-record statements, the eight candidates appear to be fairly neatly divided into two “slates” of four each on these three policy questions. While there is some fence-straddling, there really is no example of a candidate from one “slate” crossing firmly over into the other, at least on these three issues.

When it comes to zoning, decriminalization, and homelessness policy, you could shorthand these two slates the “More Leftward Slate” and the “More Moderate Slate.” The More Leftward Slate is comosed of Lorena González, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, Teresa Mosqueda, and Nikkita Oliver. The More Moderate Slate includes Bruce Harrell, Ann Davison, Kenneth Wilson, and Sara Nelson.

Put another way, it would be quite surprising if it’s not another year of The Seattle Times endorsing the Moderate Slate and The Stranger endorsing the Left Slate.

Be sure to vote by mail on or before Tuesday, November 2.