No, that really is what they meant by “Augusto”

A content warning: this post covers some disturbing comments by people on the right of US politics including threats of violence.

I cited a comment yesterday in the Debarkle introduction and a reasonable question was asked about it in the comments. I want to stress that the question really was a reasonable one and I do want and expect a degree of fact checking on the the Debarkle posts. So this post is not intended as a rebuke to the question – push back and alternative readings are welcome. However, the flip side of that is side-posts like this one where I’m going to check the receipts so to speak or…write a mea-culpa and fix a mistake where I goofed.

The downside is that this post platforms some nasty stuff. So if you want to skip it then that is a smart idea. More below the fold.

Continue reading “No, that really is what they meant by “Augusto””

Debarkle: Draft outline

Coming this month (and probably for most of the year) is “Debarkle”, a history of the Puppy Kerfuffle of 2015, the events that preceded it, the political context and how it presaged events in US politics that followed it.

What follows is the draft section and chapter order. Naturally, what will actually happen is something different from this but this is the outline I’m working to.

Roughly it is in chronological order but with various chapters flashing forward or flashing backwards to keep themes together. External politics events are also a key part of this story, some of which will get their own chapters but in other cases they will be referenced in more fannish chapters to give context and establish time periods. Sadly, a lot of those external political events are violent ones but they are ones relevant to the times and also the discussions and the political atmosphere.

There are some special recurring chapters:

  • Dramatis Personae: these chapters look at backstories to some recurring names or groups in the story. I’ve tried to keep these to a minimum but if I find that I’m writing longer paragraphs about the background to given person, I may split that off into an extra one of these. Generally, they’ll cover the ‘story so far’ up to that point. So, John Scalzi and Vox Day (and maybe the Nielsen Hayden’s) get early chapters before the opening act of this http://nielsenhayden.com/electrolite/archives/006122.html. So these chapters don’t all end up in section 1, many people will appear in the main narrative before they get one of these chapters but with a briefer introduction.
  • Meanwhile: these chapters cover things away from the main Puppy story but which, again, would otherwise become long intruding paragraphs of context. An obvious example is RaceFail 2009, which involved no puppies but did involve notable people in fandom. Likewise, a discussion of the 2015 Hugo awards can’t avoid discussion of RequiresHate and the Mixon report. You can skip these if you want to stick to the main plot. Part 6, covering 2020, is all Meanwhile.
  • Some book reviews: With the Hugosauriad I was pleased with how the two chapters looking at If You Were a Dinosaur My Love and the right-wing reaction to it worked out. The Debarkle is about many things but one of those things is stories. Currently these reviews will include Monster Hunter International, Redshirts, Ancillary Justice and the Broken Earth Trilogy, as well as some selected shorter fiction.

Speaking of the Hugosauriad, because that project contains chapters on Rachel Swirsky’s story and on Chuck Tingle, neither will get their own chapter in Debarkle. Obviously, both will get discussed but the longer coverage is in the Hugosauriad.

Currently, the plan is 6 sections.

  1. Beginnings 1880 to 2010. All the background and setting the scene.
  2. 2011 to 2014. This covers the SFWA conflicts and the first two Sad Puppy campaigns but also looks at Gamergate.
  3. 2015. This section is the most chronological and most chapters cover events in a given month up to the smoky skies of Sasquan. “Phew!” we all say in August, “Looks like we defeated fascism for good this time!” and Donald Trump enters stage right.
  4. 2016-2017. Two parallel stories – the political story with the alt-right and Donald Trump and also the story of how the Puppy campaigns fizzled out. SP4, the non-event of SP5, the Dragon Awards and how Larry finally gets his participation prize.
  5. 2018-2019. Follows the political story with some delves back into fandom. Specifically this is the politics of Sad and Rabid versions of the right in the age of Trump. The crappiest gate aka ‘Comicsgate’ will get a look in, as will the 2019 Nebulas, as ‘compare and contrast’ with the Puppy campaigns.
  6. Meanwhile 2020: Aside from an initial dive into the RWA’s meltdown, this section looks at the hell year in terms of the perspectives of the Puppy Protagonists. Dominating it are three major elements of the year, Qanon (particularly with Vox Day), Covid (Sarah Hoyt) and ‘Stop the Steal’ (Larry Correia but also Day and Hoyt).

Section 3 (i.e. the actual plot) is likely to blow-out. Three sections of aftermath may look like a lot but as the main thesis of the project is that the themes and cognitive style of the “crazy” behaviour of the US right in 2020 were already overt and apparent in 2015, just at a different scale and context. Note, the thesis isn’t that the Puppies caused later events (they are all minor bit players in bigger story, if that) but rather that the same underlying cultures and attitudes on the right that erupted as the Puppies in fandom, later erupted at a bigger scale (and at greater human cost) in US politics. Sections won’t be of equal length.

As always, suggestions, comments etc are welcome but it will also end up being whatever gets written at the time!

  • Intro: Jan 6 2021
  • Part 1: Beginnings 1880 to 2010
    A short history of the Hugo Awards 1953 to 2000
    Dramatis Personae 1: John Scalzi
    Dramatis Personae 2: Theodore Beale
    Tor, Baen and Amazon 1990 -2011
    Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America 1965 to 2010
    March 1, 2005: Electrolyte
    Dramatis Personae 3: Larry Correia
    2007: Monster Hunter International
    Meanwhile: Barack Obama
    Meanwhile: Racefail 2009
    2010 Hugos and the SFWA
  • Part 2: 2011 to 2014
    2011: Larry Goes to Worldcon
    2012-13: The Day-Scalzi Feud
    Meanwhile: Mitt Romney
    2013 “How to get Correia nominated for a Hugo”
    2013: Redshirts
    Dramatis Personae 4: N.K.Jemisin
    2013: Trouble at the SFWA
    Dramatis Personae 5: Sarah Hoyt and the Mad Geniuses
    Opera Vita Aeterna
    2014: Sad Puppies 2
    2014: Ancillary Justice
    2014: Vox Gets the Boot
    Dramatis Personae 6: John C wright and the Evil League of Evil
    Dramatis Personae 7: George R R Martin
    2014: The Hugos go to London
    Meanwhile: Requires Hate
    Meanwhile: GamerGate
    Dramatis Personae 8: Brad Torgersen
  • Part 3: 2015
    January: Announcing SAD PUPPIES 3!
    February: Rabid Puppies 2015
    March: Warnings
    April Part 1: TSHTF
    April Part 2: Hugos Hit the News
    Dramatis Personae 9: Mike Glyer and File 770
    May: Planning Ahead
    E Pluribus Hugo
    June Part 1: The Tor Boycott
    Totaled
    June Part 2: The Human Toll
    July: Crescendo
    August: Sasquan
    September-December: Taking Stock
    Meanwhile: Donald Trump
  • Part 4: Fall of the Puppies 2016-2017
    The Broken Earth Trilogy
    Quarter 1 2016 Part 1: Sad Puppies 4
    Quarter 1 2016 Part 2: Rabid Puppies
    Meanwhile: The Rise of the Alt Right
    Dramatis Personae 10: Jon Del Arroz
    Enter the Dragon
    Quarter 2: Reactions
    Meanwhile: GOP goes Trump
    August: Midamericon
    September: Dragon Awards 2016
    Meanwhile: Me Too
    Meanwhile: President Donald Trump
    The Sad Demise of SP5
    Rabid Puppies 2017
    Worldcon 75 – Finland
  • Part 5: The Trump Years 2018-2019
    Overview
    Comicsgate
    Meanwhile: Qanon
    Changing fortunes at the Dragon Awards
    Meanwhile: Black Lives Matter
    Gender at the Hugo Awards
    Meanwhile: 20booksto50 and the Nebulas
    Dramatis Personae: Mixed Fortunes
    The Hugos and the Campbell Legacy
  • Part 6: Meanwhile 2020
    Trouble in Romance
    Covid 19
    Black Lives Matter
    US Presidential Election
    “Stop the Steal”
  • Conclusion: Reality and the Imagination

Bonus! Here is a Rabid version of the cover art.

Gamestop etc and the Alt-Right

The term “Alt-Right” has gone out of fashion largely because there is increasingly little differentiation between the US right in general and the section that promotes extreme & far-fetched ideas via internet communities and social media. I still find it a handy term though, partly because for everybody else when we think of “conservative” we think “pro-business and pro-capitalism”. Whereas, the modern right’s relationship with those ideas are more akin to the stance of some right wing political movements in the first half of the twentieth century i.e. often critical of established interest while being overtly hostile to left-wing movements and reform of capitalism. The question as to why the modern right’s stance on capitalism resembles that of, say, 1930s fascist movements is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader*.

Meanwhile, people of all kinds of politics have been paying attention to the Reddit-led antics on the stockmarket, where a kind of internet-rebellion has done some severe damage to dodgy hedge funds. There are numerous explainers out there but will go with Cory Doctorow’s:

Although the morals and motivations of both parties may be complex, it really isn’t hard to pick sides here. People (rightly) are cheering on the Reddit-rebels and enjoying the misfortune of the hedge funds.

When the app that many of the people where using to trade the stock clamped down on the sale of Gamestop stock, there was a political pushback from both major political parties.

Ted Cruz in turn said he supported AOC’s tweet, which led to a different back-and-forth when she pointed out his complicity in the death threats against her.

More widely on the internet, the right wing voices I keep an eye on generally take the same position of cheering on the Reddit-led stock-trading rebels. This isn’t surprising because events share some (but not all) of the features of the kind of internet based actions that the alt-right have either fostered, attached themselves to or taken over in the past:

  • It features individual action coordinated within internet communities
  • It exploits vulnerabilities in existing systems that assume that individuals (rather than institutions) will only participate as discrete individuals (i.e. not act in a coordinated way for other motives)
  • It can be cast in terms of ordinary people versus shadowy elites
  • It doesn’t and cannot lead to any kind of positive systemic reform
  • It does not seek to aid or improve the lot of marginalised people

It is those latter points that prevent the conflict from being to inherently left-wing in a way that would lead right-wing voices to flip the other way and start denouncing the Redditors as terrorists or cultural Marxists etc. Similarly, the final dot-point is what distinguishes this from an ACTUAL right wing internet insurgency. While Gamergate and the Puppy campaigns share many of the points above, those campaigns actively sought to make the lives of marginalised people worse and were overtly anti-left in nature (although they attempted to portray themselves as having a more neutral agenda e.g. “ethics in journalism”.)

Put another way, the r/wallstreetbets actions are NOT “Gamergate but with stocks” but do share enough similarities that the Gamergate-right are not just supportive of it but positively excited about it and regard it as a thing which is “theirs”. Like watching a necker-cube, a small shift of perspective allows us to see the same events as something that people on the left can support. There’s not a paradox there nor is it a case of left and alt-right finding common ground or the beginning of a kind of red-brown alliance. Left and right are looking at different things here.

What’s the difference? For the left the premise that “Wall Street sucks” is not news. The stock market is just one of the more obvious ways in which we live in a system with entrenched power for the wealthy and laws that help support that. The means with how that has come about are known and people have been documenting them for a couple of hundred years at least. It is a systemic problem and hence the system needs either mild-reform (liberalism), substantial reform (social-democracy) or needs to be torn down and utterly replaced (revolutionary communism). It’s not a conspiracy, it’s not a surprise, and nor is it even the worst part of the current economic status-quo.

For the alt-right none of the above is viewed as correct. They see the initial events as capitalism working as it should and then the “elites” stepping in and rigging the game. The literal term “elites” has wide currency and is a free floating concept. For the more openly neo-Nazi groups they equate the term with Jewish people. For the overlapping Qanon cultists, it is the shadowy groups trafficking children and engaging in cannibalistic anti-ageing rituals. Across the board on the right, the “elites” are blamed for all social change that the right reacts against. So everything from science fiction books not having enough rockets on the cover, to Star Wars having to many women in it, to trans-rights, Black Lives Matter or fossil-fuel reduction targets. So, when the government takes action to stop the stock market tanking, then for the right that is the same “elites” (as in they think it is quite literally the same people) who are rolling out Covid vaccines or are using “they/them” pronouns on their Twitter profiles.

For an example, here is Brian “Dragon Award Winner” Niemeier:

“Taken together, those breadcrumbs form a trail leading to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The GameStop squeeze threatens big donors and the Treasury Secretary, so Biden Intervened.”

https://www.brianniemeier.com/2021/01/biden-intervened.html

(Also, note the grift element at the end!)

Again, note – yes, the Biden administration almost certainly is intervening or is going to intervene but again, the core reason being that the stockmarket is systemically bad. A government can’t not intervene because wobbling the table can’t be allowed when the whole economy depends on a very expensive house of cards. The Trump administration would have intervened as well — the difference is that the alt-right would have characterised that as the “swamp” or the “deep state” acting against Trump’s wishes. The characters would have shifted but the narrative would have been the same.

The right-hand side of politics can’t adopt the answer of “systemic inequalities lead to dysfunctional societies” and hence when things aren’t working out the answer becomes “evil people are making the good system work badly”. They take as axiomatic that there must be hierarchy with better people at the top who are rightly rich and powerful, so when facts show the people at the top are just flawed people muddling through and acting in petty or short-sighted ways, they conclude that their must be a conspiracy. For a given individual, the “conspiracy” may not start as an anti-Semitic one but they trend that way. In short Nazis will be looking to exploit these events to recruit.

“Hey”, I hear you say, “You haven’t mentioned Vox Day yet.” Good point. He’s obviously saying much of what I summarised above i.e. a right-wing extremist trying to put a Gamergate spin on it. However, for readers who have been trying to follow the confusing Patreon litigation, he has also been pointing to the Robinhood app’s arbitration clause. The “swamp a company with arbitration claims” tactic is another aspect that is something that has been used for progressive causes but which is also being adopted as a right wing tactic. The lawyer involed in the Patreon case (Marc Randazza see this earlier post https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/meanwhile-in-law-virulent-nationalism/ ) is promoting the idea:

Note that losing these kinds of mass actions is not necessarily a failure for the wider objective of the right. As was seen with Gamergate, some people get dragged into the initial enthusiasm and then drop out when everything fizzles out. For others, losing helps feed the radicalism. It’s the same coping mechanism we all watched with the recent election. A person takes in all the propaganda of inevitable victory to the point that they are absolutely certain of the outcome. The outcome then doesn’t happen. Response? Somebody must have cheated! Reality intruding into the confabulated ideas leads to some people holding onto those ideas more strongly. This is particularly true when those ideas already contain a narrative of shadowy nefarious people working against the individual personally.

TL:DR The Gamestop story is not “Gamergate but with stocks” but the far right will attempt to exploit it to recruit and radicalise.


*Hint: it’s because they are just an updated version of those same movements.

Lawfare…with a whimper

I had missed this among the various histrionics among the right post Biden’s inauguration. The legal dispute between Owen ‘Flat Earth’ Benjamin and Patreon appears to be over. Patreon asked for the case they had lodged to be dismissed. Court documents for case CGC20584586 PATREON, INC. VS. PAUL MICHAEL AYURE ET AL show that the case was taken off calendar on January 20 after Patreon had asked for it to be dismissed.

Vox “I have never been a neo-Nazi” Day did make a short post about it and was obviously pleased but there are no surrounding details.

Previous posts can be found here https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/11/14/lawfare-developments/

Starting February: Debarkle

I’ve been mulling over for some time (years tbh) writing a history of the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy attempt to hijack the Hugo Awards. A few things have put me off doing so. Two of the obstacles is any account needs at least some treatment of RaceFail and of the Requires Hate story and they are rabbit holes of controversy (but there are ways through that I think). However, one issue is an end point. In terms of Larry Correia’s frustration at not getting an award, the 2016 Dragon Award ceremony, which also saw Vox Day’s Castalia House getting its participation trophies, is an obvious place to stop. You can finish a story there and say “and the puppies went away and had their own awards”. It is unsatisfying and misleading though.

The appeal with finishing the story there is the main action of the Puppy Debarkle ends there with things petering out with the collapse of Sad Puppies 5 and the process reforms blunting the impact of Rabid Puppies 3 the following year. However, the point of writing about the Debarkle is the wider context. Fandom has had its fair share of squabbles, kerfuffles and scandals but what makes the Debarkle interesting in particular is the connection with wider events. The Sad Puppies presented their unexpected fannish-insurrection as primarily a question of aesthetics, as Larry Correia stated in his first attempt to hijack the Hugo Awards, this was an attempt to frustrate the “literati”. Contrariwise, the opposition to the Puppies contended that they were a politically reactionary movement.

It is this second issue that frames any discussion. It’s not a difficult proposition to demonstrate, that the Puppies were a politically reactionary movement motivated by a dislike of the left in general and the advocacy for women and people of colour and LGBQTI people more specifically. By late 2016 the Puppies of all stripes were barely pretending otherwise and, of course, Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies never pretended otherwise. But a more open question is whether the process of the Debarkle radicalised the Puppies or whether a growing social rift in America (and beyond) was radicalising them regardless?

I don’t know the answer to that question but it is the kind of question I could get a better answer to if I attempt this. Of course, placing the Puppies in the context of the politics also gives a point in time to look back from and say “how did we get here?” That point looks very much like January 6 2021.

Take, for example, this artefact of current right wing discourse in the wake of the attempted putsch in America’s capitol:

“Apparently Sarah Hoyt is the only non-cuck at Instapundit.”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2021/01/give-girl-her-props.html

Or, looking in a different direction, imagine being a future historian and trying to explain all the context to this tweet:

Neither GamerGate nor the Debarkle by themselves explain events and both were shaped by social forces that were hard to see. Yet, rather like the tracks made by invisible particles in a bubble chamber, the revealed shifts in attitudes and changing political coalitions that were also leading up to changes on a bigger scale. Within a short time, political upsets in the US and UK (Trump becoming the Republican Party POTUS nominee and the Brexit referendum) saw right-wing, populist, anti-rational positions taking hold of national policy. Where they motivated by the same thing as the Puppy movements? We can debate that but the Puppies generally thought so (Brexit more than Trump oddly).

Five years after peak-Puppy, in the hell year that was 2020 notable figures in the Debarkle were pushing firstly covid-19 conspiracies, followed by attempts to mobilise anti-lockdown protests, followed by anti-mask wearing propaganda, followed by anti-vaccine propaganda. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election defeat, chief Sad Puppy Larry Correia was a notable booster of “steal” conspiracy theories and his posts on the topic were widely shared in conservative circles. Meanwhile, since late 2017, Vox Day was an early adopter and promoter of “QANON” the free-floating anti-rational meta-conspiracy theory and also an early advocate in 2020 of the need for Trump to seize power by force to ensure a second term.

The Debarkle (in particular peak Debarkle in 2015) presaged events in a microcosm but also later events clarify questions. At the time, it was an open question as to how politically extreme many of the Sad Puppy leaders where, there even people who attempted apparently good-faith arguments that Vox Day somehow wasn’t that extreme. Supporters of the Sad Puppies would often point to Sarah Hoyt (a woman and an immigrant to the US from a non-anglophone country) as clear evidence that the Sad Puppies were neither sexist or racist. I believe that even at the time the evidence demonstrated that their argument was flawed but with 2020 hindsight, the manner in which Hoyt refers to the VP-elect of the USA Kamala Harris is a much simpler refutation of the idea that she somehow is immune to sexism and racism.

Nor would it be sensible to write about the 2015 side-plot of the infamous Tor Boycott without pointing to Mad Genius blogger and one-time Castalia House author Peter Grant stating in the wake of yesterday’s attempt to overthrow the US constitution that: “If I were in D.C. today, I’d be in the Capitol along with the protesters.” If you’ve overtly placed yourself to the right of the leaders of the Republican Party (and for that matter the very right wing current Vice President of the US) and are contemplating civil war because you’ve fully bought into a stab-in-the-back mythology of stolen victory…well…”“extreme right wing to neo-nazi, respectively” was always a very apt description. How much time did we spend dissecting the various political positions that notable Puppies might have in an attempt to tease out the nuance of their politics? It’s a lot easier to sum up as “I’m not sure what they thought in 2015 but within five years they’ll be demanding the violent overthrow of the government in a far-right putsch.”

I’ll post more about the structure and the schedule of Debarkle as a blog series. Obviously, and as always, comments and corrections will be more than welcome, indeed expected — particularly as most of you were there at the time and many of you were actively involved in countering the Puppies for years before I stuck my oar in.

Lawfare Developments

No, no, not Trump’s bizarre legal cases. I’m talking about a different right winger with a distorted view of reality. Yes, we are back on the Patreon versus Fans of Owen ‘Flat Earth’ Benjamin. For previous episodes of this saga please see:

So the next episode in this Quixotic tale was scheduled for December when a case management conference was due. However, there has been a further development.

Back in June Patreon filed that the case should be designated as complex litigation [1]. That motion has now been agreed[2] and that means a new court and a new judge and I guess all sorts of things I don’t understand.

Bad news or good news for Benajmin and Vox Day? Probably bad news. This was what Patreon asked for and Day isn’t boasting about it. The case management conference has moved to January 5.


[1]https://webapps.sftc.org/ci/CaseInfo.dll?SessionID=D5B9811257FDC357307B9DA30DF4EFC50BA266F1&URL=https%3A%2F%2Fimgquery.sftc.org%2FSha1_newApp%2Fmainpage.aspx%3FWeb_Server%3Dimgquery.sftc.org%26MINDS_Server%3Dhoj-imx-01%26Category%3DC%26DocID%3D07261579%26Timestamp%3D20201114001753%3D10e5d5dff125503cd3613a55aa3403d0b42cefee

[2] https://webapps.sftc.org/ci/CaseInfo.dll?SessionID=D5B9811257FDC357307B9DA30DF4EFC50BA266F1&URL=https%3A%2F%2Fimgquery.sftc.org%2FSha1_newApp%2Fmainpage.aspx%3FWeb_Server%3Dimgquery.sftc.org%26MINDS_Server%3Dhoj-imx-01%26Category%3DC%26DocID%3D07437293%26Timestamp%3D20201114001753%3Dbc86955a0f06a22fef469e5d59bd00a573392cc1

And more right wingers talking nonsense about Benford’s Law update

It seems I was too kind to Larry Correia in my first post about the pro-Trumpist misleading claims about Benford’s Law. He actually is still pushing it as supposed evidence of election fraud.

“Basically, when numbers are aggregated normally, they follow a distribution curve. When numbers are fabricated, they don’t. When human beings create what they think of as “random” numbers, they’re not. This is an auditing tool for things like looking for fabricated invoices. It also applies to elections. A normal election follows the expected curve. If you look at a 3rd world dictatorship’s election numbers, it looks like a spike or a saw.

There’s a bunch of different people out there running the numbers for themselves and posting the results so you can check their math. It appears that checking various places around the country Donald Trump’s votes follow the curve. The 3rd party candidates follow the curve. Down ballot races follow the curve. Hell, even Joe Biden’s votes follow the curve for MOST of the country. But then when you look at places like Pittsburgh the graph looks like something that would have made Hugo Chavez blush.”

https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/11/09/election-2020-the-more-fuckery-update/

On Twitter I noted that far-right extremist Nick Fuentes is also pushing not just the misleading claims about Benford’s Law but a false claim that Wikipedia “added” criticism of its use in elections to discredit the claims being made about the 2020 general election. As I pointed out in this post, the rider that Benford’s Law use with electoral data was limited had been their for years. Rather than pro-Biden supporters adding it, Trump supporters removed the sentence and references in a bid to hide the fact that their analysis was flawed. You can read a 2013 version of the page here https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Benford%27s_law&oldid=534279795#Election_data

Since then, the section on Benford’s Law in election has expanded into a mini-essay about its use and limitations.

I don’t have a source for 2020 data at the precinct level that some of these graphs are using. I’m certain that there will be both Benford and non-Benford like distributions for Trump and Biden in various places. I do have county level data for 2020 to 2016 from here https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/VOQCHQ

The analysis is trivial to do on a spreadsheet. Grab the first character and then tabulate it with a pivot table. You can explore various candidates from Bush to Biden on a Google sheets I made here https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1LPEKnoPtOE4VtYaM9z69B-a0XkRx5tyt_vPak8TknlY/edit?usp=sharing

Here, for example is Donald Trump in Alaska in 2016:

When you look at the district sizes in Alaska and consider Trump’s proportion of the vote, it becomes obvious very quickly that it would be absurd for this data to follow Benford’s Law. Here are the first four (of 40) districts.

DistrictTrump VotesTotal VotesPercentage
District 13180663847.91%
District 23188549258.05%
District 35403761370.97%
District 44070952142.75%
Trump’s vote in four Alaskan districts in 2016

We have leading digits of 3,5 and 4 and no 1s. Why? Because to get leading digits of 1s Trump’s votes would need to be proportionately much smaller! For example if he’d only got 20% of the vote in District 1 then that would result in some 1s. In some of the examples being passed around the Trumpist circles, that is one of the reasons for Benford-like graphs — they’ve picked places where Trump’s vote was proportionately low pushing into a ranges where 1s were common as a leading digit.

The mechanics of the deception here are fascinating. There’s an initial plausibility (Benford’s Law is a real thing and is actually used to detect fraud and has been applied to elections), a lack of any critical thinking (the examples being circulated are very limited, there’s no comparison with past elections to see what is normal) but then active deception (long standing academic critiques of applying Benford’s Law to election data being actively deleted from online wikis). On that latter part, we know the more extreme white nationalist right (Fuentes, Vox Day) are active in attempting to suppress information on how to apply Benford’s Law to election data. Providing the usual smoke screen an aura of legitimacy are the usual convenient idiots for neo-Nazis such as Larry Correia, who repeat the propaganda as ‘just asking questions’.

I Guess I’m Talking About Benford’s Law

The US Presidential Election isn’t just a river in Egypt, it is also a series of bizarre claims. One of the many crimes against statistics being thrown about in what is likely to be a 5 year (minimum) tantrum about the election is a claim about Benford’s law. The first example I saw was last Friday on Larry Correia’s Facebook[1]

“For those of you who don’t know, basically Benford’s Law is about the frequency distribution of numbers. If numbers are random aggregates, then they’re going to be distributed one way. If numbers are fabricated by people, then they’re not. This is one way that auditors look at data to check to see if it has been manipulated. There’s odds for how often single digit, two digit, three digit combos occur, and so forth, with added complexity at each level. It appears the most common final TWO digits for Milwaukee’s wards is 00. 😃 Milwaukee… home of the Fidel Castro level voter turn out. The odds of double zero happening naturally that often are absurdly small. Like I don’t even remember the formula to calculate that, college was a long time ago, but holy shit, your odds are better that you’ll be eaten by a shark ON LAND. If this pans out, that is downright amazing. I told you it didn’t just feel like fraud, but audacious fraud. The problem is blue machine politics usually only screws over one state, but right now half the country is feeling like they got fucked over, so all eyes are on places like Milwaukee.I will be eagerly awaiting developments on this. I love fraud stuff. EDIT: and developments… Nothing particularly interesting. Updated data changes some of the calcs, so it goes from 14 at 0 to 13 at 70. So curious but not damning. Oh well.”

So after hyping up an idea he only vaguely understood (Benford’s law isn’t about TRAILING digits for f-ck sake and SOME number has to be the most common) Larry walked the claim back when it became clear that there was not very much there. As Larry would say beware of Dunning-Krugerands.

The same claim was popping up elsewhere on the internet and there was an excellent Twitter thread debunking the claims here:

footnote [2]

But we can have hierarchies of bad-faith poorly understood arguments. Larry Correia didn’t have the integrity to at least double check the validity of what he was posting before he posted it but at least he checked afterwards…sort of. Vox Day, however, has now also leaped upon the magic of Benford’s law [3]

Sean J Taylor’s Twitter thread does a good job of debunking this but as it has now come up from both Sad and Rabid Puppies, I thought I’d talk about it a bit as well with some examples.

First of all Benford’s law isn’t much of a law. Lots of data won’t follow it and the reason why some data follows it is not well understood. That doesn’t mean it has no utility in spotting fraud, it just means that to use it you first need to demonstrate that it applies to the kind of data you are looking at. If Benford’s Law doesn’t usually apply to the data you are looking at but your data does follow Benford’s law then THAT would/might be a sign of something going on.

That’s nothing unusual in statistics. Data follows distributions and comparing data against an applicable distribution that you expect to apply is how a lot of statistics is done. Benford’s law may or may not be applicable. As always, IT DEPENDS…

For example, if I grab the first digit of the number of Page Views on Wikipedia of Hugo Award finalists [4] then I get a set of data that is Benford like:

The most common digit is 1 as Benford’s law predicts. The probability of it being 1 according to the law is log10(1+1/d) or about 30%. Of the 1241 entries, Benford’s law would predict 374 would have a leading digit of 1 and the actual data has 316. But you can also see that it’s not a perfect fit and we could (but won’t bother because we actually don’t care) run tests to see how good a fit it was.

But what if I picked a different set of numbers from the same data set? Here is the leading digit for the “Age at Hugo” figure graphed for the finalists where I have that data.

It isn’t remotely Benford like and that’s normal (ha ha) because age isn’t going to work that way. Instead the leading digit will cluster around the average age of Hugo finalists. If the data did follow Benford’s law it would imply that teenagers were vastly more likely to win Hugo Awards (or people over 100 I suppose or both).

Generally you need a wide spread of numbers across magnitudes. For example, I joked about Hugo winners in their teens or their centuries but if we also had Hugo finalists who where 0.1… years old as well (and all ages in between) then maybe the data might get a bit more Benfordish.

So what about election data. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The twitter thread above cites a paper entitled Benford’s Law and the Detection of Election Fraud [5] but I haven’t read it. The abstract says:

“Looking at simulations designed to model both fair and fraudulent contests as well as data drawn from elections we know, on the basis of other investigations, were either permeated by fraud or unlikely to have experienced any measurable malfeasance, we find that conformity with and deviations from Benford’s Law follow no pattern. It is not simply that the Law occasionally judges a fraudulent election fair or a fair election fraudulent. Its “success rate” either way is essentially equivalent to a toss of a coin, thereby rendering it problematical at best as a forensic tool and wholly misleading at worst.”

Put another way, some election data MIGHT follow Benford’s law sometimes. That makes sense because it will partly depend on the scale of data we are looking at. For example, imagine we had a voting areas of approx 800 likely voters and two viable candidates, would we expect “1” to be a typical leading digit in vote counts? Not at all! “3” and “4” would be more typical. Add more candidates and more people and things might get more Benford like.

Harvard University has easily downloadable US presidential data by State from 1976 to 2016 [6]. At this scale and with all candidates (including numerous 3rd, 4th party candidates) you do get something quite Benford like but with maybe more 1s than expected.

Now look specifically at Donald Trump in 2016 and compare that with the proportions predicted by Benford’s law:

Oh noes! Trump 2016 as too many 1s! Except…the same caveat applies. We have no idea if Benford’s law applies to this kind of data! For those curious, Hilary Clinton’s data looks like (by eyeball only) a better fit.

Now we could test these to see how good a fit they are but…why bother? We still don’t know whether we expect the data to be a close fit or not. If you are looking at those graphs and thinking “yeah but maybe it’s close enough…” then you also need to factor in scale. I don’t have data for individual polling booths or whatever but we can look at the impact of scale by looking at minor candidates. Here’s one Vox Day would like, Pat Buchanan.

My eyeballs are more than sufficient to say that those two distributions don’t match. By Day’s misapplied standards, that means Pat Buchanan is a fraud…which he is, but probably not in this way.

Nor is it just scale that matters. Selection bias and our old friend cherry picking are also invited to the party. Because the relationship between the data and Benford’s law is inconsistent and not understood, we can find examples that fit somewhat (Trump, Clinton) and examples that really don’t (Buchanan) but also examples that are moderately wonky.

Here’s another old fraudster but whose dubious nature is not demonstrated by this graph:

That’s too many twos Ronnie!

Anyway, that is far too many words and too many graphs to say that for US Presidential election data Benford’s law applies only just enough to be horribly misleading.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/larry.correia/posts/4864622073548683

[2] Sean S Taylor’s R code https://gist.github.com/seanjtaylor/cd85175055e66cdc2bb7899a3bcdf313

[3] http://voxday.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-attack-on-benfords-law.html

[4] https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1lL9bm3I7yrkKxSAZwN1NhWr6OB8-s10IkV1g_MSSGXY/edit?usp=sharing

[5] Deckert, J., Myagkov, M., & Ordeshook, P. (2011). Benford’s Law and the Detection of Election Fraud. Political Analysis,19(3), 245-268. doi:10.1093/pan/mpr014 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/political-analysis/article/benfords-law-and-the-detection-of-election-fraud/3B1D64E822371C461AF3C61CE91AAF6D

[6] https://dataverse.harvard.edu/file.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.7910/DVN/42MVDX/MFU99O&version=5.0

A brief look at Voxopedia

I was asked in email, how many active editors Vox Day’s vanity clone of Wikipedia has. The answer is about 30 people a month make some sort of edit but that includes people making a change to their own page (and those are often people who sign up with user accounts and then do nothing). I think the number of people actively editing is about half that and of those there is a core of around six people. Essentially this is not very different from how it was in 2017, about a year into its existence.

I don’t know the number of user accounts it has but I believe it is substantial. Initially, I tracked how quickly it was signing up users but I got bored. The idea of the semi-vandalised clone of Wikipedia remains popular but despite that approval, the number of people on the right willing to do the work is tiny.