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Vetting information sources

Published by marco on

This is an interesting discussion by Eleanor Goldfield and Lee Camp on their Common Censored podcast. It ranges across different topics, but the part I found the most interesting was about vetting information sources.

They did a good job of citing a Grayzone article by Ben Norton that got to the bottom of a concerted misinformation campaign about the purported Chinese genocide, for which evidence is vanishingly scarce, despite the opposite appearance in the mainstream press. But then Goldfield and Camp cited a very dubious statistic of their own, that I analyze in more depth below.

Prisoners Fight Back, Lies About China & Fingerprint Analysis (CC Podcast #143) by Eleanor Goldfield & Lee Camp (YouTube)

Vetting information sources

At 47:20:

Lee Camp: You couldn’t make up more garbage to put forward. Its [Network of Human Rights Defenders (NHRD)] annual report notes that ‘this report has been produced with the financial support of generous donors’, but the donors are never named. […] So you can’t find out who funds this U.S.-backed, regime-change organization to funnel garbage information to […] organizations like the U.N., which then funnels that garbage report to outlets like Reuters.

“And, by the way, that Reuters report—and I used to be like this. I used to read Reuters and think: Ok. It’s not FOX News, it’s not CNN. Reuters is much more legit. And I used to just pick up Reuters—and if Reuters had a headline and it said ‘million Uighurs in camp in China’, I would go ‘that’s pretty unimpeachable’. There’s no doubt there. That must be true. They wouldn’t run with a headline that adamant if they didn’t know. And, I now see that it can come from utter garbage and then … John Oliver is like an 18-year-old me. He sees the Reuters and […] he’ll almost exclusively quote from NYT, Reuters, AP—those are his big gotos—and if something is said in Reuters, he will plaster it all over.”

At 50:45, Lee likens this process to money-laundering, but for information.

“This is an almost completely US-funded, regime-change outlet that pumps out false reports and then gets them into some idiot at the UN whose willing to do the American Empire’s bidding and then they say it and then Reuters…It’s basically like a game of Telephone, but it’s more like money-laundering, where you put it through several areas, like several new shops that take the money in, and it goes out the back door—and then it looks clean. […] Well, where did this information come from? Oh, it came from the UN. Then it must be legit. And the UN goes, where did this information come from? And they go, oh, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders! Well, that sounds nice.”

This analysis is related to the Section 230C1/C2: A debate on continuing utility are I recently wrote because, in that discussion, both Eugene and Eric kind of assumed that they were only talking about whether tech companies have too much power to control the narrative, when all media companies actually have too much power to control the narrative.

Dubious statistics about prisoners

A little later, Camp and Goldfield cited a statistic that they’re very fond of: “that there are more black people in prison today than there were under slavery.”

In so doing, they demonstrated another way of laundering information: manipulation of statistics. At first, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, that this figure is correct for a given set of parameters. But I did a bit of research—and it’s wildly off.

But there’s a lot of context missing: do they mean number of slaves ever? Or that were enslaved at any one time? Let’s assume that latter because the former would be a much bigger number and would be much more difficult to pin down.

According to Population of the United States from the final census conducted before the Civil War in 1860, by race and gender (Statista), the U.S. population in 1860 was about 31.5M. Of those, 4.5M were black. This is less than 10% of the population of the U.S. in 2020, about 330M. I’ve taken the accepted estimate I’ve seen cited elsewhere because the article Demographics of the United States (Wikipedia) only has figures from 2010 because the 2020 census isn’t finished yet. It was about 310M then.

The article Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880 (Statista) indicates that, of those 4.5M, “89.01%” were slaves. So, just about 4M black people were enslaved. That’s the absolute number we’ll work with: the number of black people enslaved at the peak population and just before the civil war.

The numbers for incarceration are more complicated. If you just go by prison population, those numbers have been declining since 2010. There were about 1.5M total prisoners in 2019, according to U.S. Department of Justice − Office of Justice Programs − Bureau of Justice Statistics. But those numbers don’t count the people in pre-trial detention and post-detention programs (e.g. parole, which is extremely restrictive as well and technically counts as still being “in the system).

There is a lot more information on the BJS home page. For example, another report notes that there were 738,400 jail inmates in 2018, the most recent year for which they’ve published numbers. That would take the prison+jail population to about 2.4M.

For further corroboration, the article Incarceration in the United States (Wikipedia) points out that “4,751,400 adults in 2013 (1 in 51) were on probation or on parole.” That makes a total of nearly 7M people “under correctional supervision”. Of those actually in prison, 40% are black. If we assume that same percentage roughly applies to those under correctional supervision, then, in 2013, there were 2.8M black people under correctional supervision.

This is a much higher incarceration/supervision rate than for whites (2300 per 100,000 vs. 450)—and horrible—but that’s an entirely separate issue from the investigation we’ve undertaken. It is a far cry from “more black people in prison today than there were under slavery.”, as Lee and Eleanor are fond of citing. That’s even being generous and assuming they meant “under correctional supervision” rather than “in prison”. The number of black people in prison in 2013 (the last year for which I’m able to find numbers) was 40% of 2.2M, which is 880,000, which is only just over 20% of the number of black slaves in 1860.

Their statistic is not just massaged, but completely wrong and, therefore, just as misleading as the statistics they spent 10 minutes (rightfully) demolishing. They’re not the only ones citing it and either everyone should stop citing it or I’d be happy if someone could point out to me how it could make sense.