How President Trump used modal verbs in his Syrian air strikes speech

A list of modal verb usage in President Trump's recent speech on the Syrian air strikes. "American" subjects are highlighted.

Modal (auxiliary) verbs (can, could, should, would, must, will, etc.) are an interesting subset of American language, as they are used to indicate "intention" (the way things "ought to" be or "should" be, or an evaluation of what "can" happen). Different modals have different degrees of "modal force."

Here, you'll see that the modal "can" is the most commonly used, often referring to non-American subjects (e.g., "nations of the world" or "our friends"). In the three instances "can" is used in relation to Americans, two are negations ("No amount of American blood..." and "we cannot..."). In the last instance, "can" is used to express a hope, rather than an intention.

By contrast, the other "can" modals are used effectively as threats and evaluations: "The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep" or "Increased engagement [...] can ensure that Iran does not profit..."

This distinction is important because it uses our allies and vague "international norms" to express how the world "can" be. Even though the U.S. is certainly an instigator, the modal verb usage implies that we are trying to distance ourselves from taking ownership of these air strikes. We frame this use of force as unavoidable, because of actions taken by other states. The singular use of "would" and "must" in relation to Russia reinforces this further, especially given that they are used so closely together (Russia was supposed to do something, and then they didn't, so they now must do something else).

To make a long story short, we express the necessity of use of force here by saying what we (the US) "cannot" do, and implying what "can" (implicitly "should") happen as a result.

This speech obviously deviates from President Trump's typical language use, but it goes to show the significance of "use of force": even rebels fall in line when they have to justify violence.

(Hoping to do some analysis of news around this air strike tonight as well!)

Interview with Cap Times

This past week, I interviewed with Capital Times in Madison to talk about a recent co-authored study about Russian propaganda in U.S. news media.

I'm glad that the writer, Lisa Speckhard, did a great job capturing my greatest concern with Russian influence and disinformation. We know that the Russians are not going to stop trying to infiltrate U.S. public discourse. They haven't stopped since WWII, and I doubt they ever will.

What we can do is ask ourselves (1) where are they likely to make their way into American political discourse and (2) what can we do [on our end] to stop it.

Journalists are in a special space, as gatekeepers of information, to both prevent and perpetuate Russian propaganda from amplifying. As we learned through this study, this gate is not impervious... especially now that there are so many gates.

In order to keep our public discourse "pure" (that is, not unknowingly manipulated by foreign influences), we need to be self-reflexive, vigilant, and careful. I am continually reminded of this when news organizations reach out to members of our team asking about various articles that have included IRA-linked tweets. We need more news organizations like this and like Slate, who continue to be critical of their journalistic routines. 

New UW Study on Russian Twitter Trolls in U.S. Media

This past week, my research team published a study on news media's use of tweets written by Russia's Internet Research Agency (a copy of the study can be found here).

We also wrote a parallel article with Columbia Journalism Review.

Importantly, we show that Russian tweets conveying stereotypical partisan beliefs were picked up by a variety of mainstream and partisan news outlets. We are particularly critical of news stories that use "strings of tweet" to represent the vox populi (voice of the people). Unlike the more traditional "man on the street" interviews, tweets used in news stories (particularly online ones) are difficult to verify.

However, as shown by the (admittedly shallow) penetration of IRA tweets, it is still important for journalists to verify these Twitter users to the best of their ability. Journalists can do so by corresponding outside of the tweet-o-sphere (e.g., email), trying to look up the user's name on a search engine, or by looking at that user's past social media history.

Digital, partisan news outlets were particularly susceptible to embedded these IRA tweets. Liberal and conservative organizations both used tweets to convey cheap talk (discourse that supports their position or criticizes their opponents'). If the goal of Russian disinformation in the United States was to increase doubt in the news media system and increase polarization in the civil sphere, the amplification of these messages through partisan outlets represent some measure of success.


Why does this matter? Aside from natural concerns about deceptive foreign practices to our public sphere, the appearance of these messages across a broad range of news organizations  (bost partisan and traditional, liberal and conservative) shows how little tweets were checked. It highlights a greater problem: our willingness to promote partisan messages to prove a political point, even if they have little to no journalistic value and are not verified. 

Parkland shooting news coverage bigrams

Below is a bigram of words associated with "students", "victims", "cruz", "shooter", and "student" (darker arrows indicate higher frequency) from a corpus of stories about the Parkland shooting (written within a week of the shooting).

[Note that "student" is often used for the shooter, and "students" is often used for the victims]

Bigrams constructed using rvest. Articles were gathered using MediaCloud from CNN, Daily Mail, Daily Caller, Huffington Post, Fox News, Yahoo News, Daily Beast, Chicago Tribune, Raw Story, NBC News, CBS News, sfgate, Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, The New York Times, and USA Today (n = 75).


Foreign Diplomacy and Policy

Frankly, I do not know why people are so surprised by Trump's recent "shithole" remark

For those who are unfamiliar, President Trump recently expressed frustration that immigrants were more likey to come from "shithole" countries like Haiti and "Africa" (presumably, countries within the continent Africa), rather than countries like "Norway." Washington Post broke the story.

However, this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. President Trump's generally negative perception of countries in the Global South (as it was meant to represent), and of diplomacy in general, is well documented (here, here, and here). His "foreign policy" is guided by his campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," focusing only on policies which should benefit the United States. Coupling his hatred of immigrants and those from developing world (i.e., "shithole" countries), it is no wonder that he prefers immigrants from the "Democratic North."

But one word, or indeed one statement, does not a foreign policy make. It is only the discursive part of a much larger, and more important change in U.S. foreign policy. In 2017, we have seen a drastic decline in foreign aid-- a result of Trump's "America first" campaign. His upheavals of U.S. foreign policy appear unplanned and surprising, even to the Defense or State Department. 

This "America first" campaign does not necessarily mean an isolationist strategy, but rather a campaign dominated by U.S. preeminence, rather than U.S. sympathy. This is manifest destiny in its ugly, modern form. Devoid of ethics, human decency, and true American values. President Trump saying "shithead countries" is not just an example, but a consequence of his overall foreign policy strategy, which has far more tangible effects than a statement said in an intra-state meeting. Charity, to Trump, is for "suckers," and thus, minor things like "human rights" are soundly disregarded.

For example, consider the Trump Administration's recent push for easing export rules regarding U.S. guns sold overseas (broken by Reuters, reported by many others). This is meant to make U.S. weaponry more competitive against those developed by other countries. The U.S. is already a leading provider of weapons exports, 80% of which go to developing countries

The underlying rationale for these eased regulations is a classic Republican goal: to increase jobs in the United States (nevermind that full unemployment is still not 0% unemployment). This includes sales to "shithole" countries like Nigeria, to fight Boko Haram, countries of interest like Saudi Arabia, and allies like Taiwan. In fact, arms sales appear to be the primary strategy of President Trump's foreign policy. After all, no one wants to go up against the person (or country) who sells them their weapons.

But it is important to keep in mind the greater cost of these short-sighted policies. In focusing on arms sales and depending on increasing conflict to boost the U.S. economy, President Trump's foreign policy also paves the way for alternative state leaders to usurp the United States' status as the global hegemon. In particular, China has found Trump's foreign policy to be an open door of opportunity. Such consequences can impact the United States longer than Trump's term in office. 

In other words: Trump's "shithead" comment is not surprising, and is indeed consistent, with his arms-heavy, hard-power heavy brute-force foreign policy strategy. Regardless of whether the United States comes out first or not, it doesn't matter so long as we think the U.S. should.

New Year!

Welcome to the 2017 year!

One of my resolutions is to write more, and so I'm hoping to revive my blog on my newly revamped website!

Some other resolutions for the new year:

1) Learn to bake macarons using the French and Italian method
2) Learn basic Python
3) Finish an author-study
4) Finish my coursework (!!!)

So here's to more adventures, more research, and more learning in 2018! :)