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Ryan Saavedra

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  • Right-wing media amplify absurd interpretation of something Rep. Ilhan Omar said about 9/11

    A majority of criticisms against Omar are being made in bad faith

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On March 23, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) spoke at an event put on by the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Woodland Hills, CA. The roughly 20-minute speech, which centered on some of the challenges American Muslims face such as anti-Muslim rhetoric, is attracting new attention weeks later for a line mentioning 9/11.

    In context, what she said was clear: No matter how “good” American Muslims are, they’ll continue to be treated as second-class citizens because of anti-Muslim attitudes and government policies that intensified in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. American Muslims are still treated with suspicion and subjected to undue scrutiny by the government and public alike. The argument Omar was making in her speech was very clearly about how unfair it is to be lumped in with terrorists and constantly stereotyped on the basis of faith. While saying this, she referred to the 9/11 hijackers as “some people.” When put in context, that choice of words was clearly meant to differentiate between terrorists and American Muslims. The controversy surrounding this line (in bold below) is based on misinterpreting what she said as downplaying the 9/11 attacks -- something that she never did.  Below is a partial transcript:

    The truth is you can go to school and be a good student. You can listen to your dad and mom and become a doctor. You can have that beautiful wedding that makes mom and dad happy. You can buy that beautiful house. But none of that stuff matters if you one day show up to the hospital and your wife, or maybe yourself, is having a baby, and you can’t have the access that you need because someone doesn’t recognize you as fully human.

    It doesn’t matter how good you were if you can’t have your prayer mat and take your 15-minute break to go pray in a country that was founded on religious liberty. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you one day find yourself in a school where other religions are talked about, but when Islam is mentioned, we are only talking about terrorists. And if you say something, you are sent to the principal’s office. So to me, I say, raise hell; make people uncomfortable.

    Because here’s the truth -- here’s the truth: Far too long, we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly, I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties. So you can’t just say that today someone is looking at me strange, that I am going to try to make myself look pleasant. You have to say, “This person is looking at me strange. I am not comfortable with it. I am going to go talk to them and ask them why.” Because that is a right you have.

    A bad-faith reading of Omar’s speech sparked the latest in an increasingly long line of attacks on the congresswoman.

    On April 8, Imam Mohamad Tawhidi tweeted a 19-second clip from the speech, falsely stating that Omar doesn’t consider 9/11 a terrorist attack. He also called CAIR a “terrorist organization.”

    By the afternoon of April 9, right-wing media were all over this story, perhaps nudged on by tweets from Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, the latter of whom accused Omar of being “anti-American.”

    Breitbart, The Washington Times, and the Christian Broadcasting Network published articles about the video. The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra, who called Omar an “idiot” earlier in the week, wrote that Omar “trivialized the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.” Conservative Review went so far as to baselessly suggest that Omar appeared “to be entertaining a conspiracy theory when she [said] that ‘some people did something.’” On the April 9 edition of The Glenn Beck Program, co-host Pat Gray commented on the clip, saying that Omar “makes American Muslims sound like the victims of 9/11. They weren’t.”

    During his April 9 Fox News show, Sean Hannity criticized Omar, referring to the “just unearthed” video. Describing the video as “unearthed” might give the impression that there was an attempt to hide it, but it was actually posted on YouTube, and Fox News even streamed it live on Facebook.

    On the April 10 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade questioned whether Omar was sufficiently American, saying, “Really? ‘Some people did something’? You have to wonder if she is an American first. ... Can you imagine if she was representing your community, and you were in her district, how embarrassed you must feel today.”

    Kilmeade continued: “This would’ve been an opportunity for a Muslim American to say, ‘Let me just tell you how Al Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabab, and others don’t represent our religion and that maybe we got lumped in together.’” He also said that the U.S. is “trying to contain this infection which is Muslim extremists. Why she wouldn't use herself and her leadership position to separate the American Muslim from that school of thought is beyond me.”

    Obviously, it wouldn’t have made much sense for Omar to explain to an audience of Muslims at a Muslim advocacy organization fundraiser something they very obviously already know -- that they’re not the same as the 9/11 terrorists. Kilmeade didn’t let that stop him, however.

    This is the latest example of right-wing media willfully offering obtuse and sinister interpretations of something a Democrat said.

    Recently, the RNC published an 18-second clip of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) saying, “We need comprehensive immigration reform. If you are in this country now, you must have the right to pay into Social Security, to pay your taxes, to pay into the local school system, and to have a pathway to citizenship.”

    A reasonable interpretation of what she said is that many undocumented immigrants pay into our systems as it is, and these productive members of society should have a right to pursue citizenship if they want to. The right-wing narrative, however, coalesced around an obviously false claim that she was suggesting giving Social Security money to undocumented immigrants.

    The same thing happened last year after a clip of former Attorney General Eric Holder was widely spread with the claim that he was calling for violence when he said “when they go low, we kick them,” even though he went on to very explicitly say what he meant by “kick.”

    In addition to being undercut by the context of the event, their argument against Omar’s speech is further demolished when you consider that President Donald Trump has a history of referring to terrorists as “losers” -- which Fox News defended at the time. The one real point they might have is that she misstated when CAIR was founded. The organization was founded in 1994, not after the 9/11 attacks.

    Update (4/11/19): Right-wing media continued their anti-Omar pile-on into the evening and morning after this piece was originally published. During the April 10 edition of Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs and guest Tammy Bruce laid into Omar for the “some people did something” line.

    “She sounds like she hates America, Tammy,” said Dobbs. “She sounds like she hates Jews; she hates Israelis. What is it she doesn’t hate?”

    Bruce then baselessly claimed that the line was intended to convey a belief that “we deserve, perhaps, what happened to us [on 9/11]. That those innocent victims deserve that in some fashion.”

    On April 11, the New York Post published a front page story based on the distorted comment accompanied by a photo of one of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the headline “Here’s your something.” This, again, doesn’t fairly reflect what she said.

    The message of her speech was specifically that American Muslims often get unfairly lumped in with terrorists. On March 1, NBC reported that the West Virginia Republican Party allegedly set up an anti-Muslim display in the state capitol building. Among the items was a picture of the World Trade Center being hit by a plane with the words “‘Never forget’ - you said..” Below that was a photo of Omar with the text “I am the proof - you have forgotten.”

    In February, a Coast Guard lieutenant named Christopher Paul Hasson was arrested on drug and gun charges, and prosecutors found that he had been creating a hit list of prominent Democrats and journalists to attack. Omar was among the names. In early April, a Trump supporter named Patrick W. Carlineo was arrested for threatening to assassinate Omar.

    Ramping up anti-Omar sentiment based on a willful misreading of something she said will only put her in more danger.

  • What The Daily Wire gets wrong (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets right) about algorithms and racism

    “If you don’t fix the bias, then you’re automating the bias.”

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Criticizing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has become something of a pastime for conservative media since the rising Democratic star landed on their radar following her primary victory in late June 2018. Since then, they’ve rarely passed up an opportunity to pounce on gaffes -- real or imagined, big or small. A new attempt by The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra to catch the 29-year-old representative in an embarrassing situation has left him the subject of ridicule.  

    On January 21, Ocasio-Cortez sat with author Ta-Nehisi Coates for a wide-ranging conversation. During the talk, the freshman representative brought up the idea of bias being effectively built in to algorithms, specifically referring to facial recognition software.

    “They always have these racial inequities that get translated because algorithms are still made by human beings. And those algorithms are still pegged to those -- to basic human assumptions,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re just automated. … If you don’t fix the bias, then you’re automating the bias.”

    Saavedra posted a video of this comment to Twitter, snarking that the congresswoman (whom he once called “dumb-dumb”) was wrong about algorithms being biased as they are “driven by math.”

    Ocasio-Cortez was right, Saavedra was wrong, and Twitter was quick to let him know. Naturally, he doubled down.

    When Parker Higgins, director of special projects at Freedom of the Press, pushed back on Saavedra’s initial claim, Saavedra called him a “moron,” pointing to a study about facial recognition software that happened to have the word “mathematical” in its title but didn’t mention bias.

    Saavedra came back to this point later that day in an article titled “AOC Snaps: World Could End In 12 Years, Algorithms Are Racist, Hyper-Success Is Bad.” The article plays on a number of anti-Ocasio-Cortez talking points -- increasingly embraced by conservative media -- that are aimed at painting her as uninformed and unqualified. Right-wing media have mocked her argument about the urgency of acting on climate change, and her comment about the world ending in 12 years was clearly exaggeration, but the most recent report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stressed that the next 12 years will play a pivotal role in determining whether we’ll be able to avert global climate disaster  

    As for her point about algorithms, the criticism against Saavedra wasn’t over the idea that math is involved in algorithms. Math is involved in much of what we do, from baking a pie to making change for a $20 bill. The criticism was that Saavedra seemed to incorrectly believe that because algorithms involve math, they can’t be racist or biased in some way. Yet just a few months ago, he was accusing social media companies of using algorithms that are biased against conservatives, a popular conspiracy theory on the right that is not supported by data.

    Racial bias in algorithms is a well-documented reality.

    Bias in algorithms should absolutely be taken seriously by policymakers -- especially as more of our economy becomes automated or relies on artificial intelligence.

    In July 2018, the ACLU published the results of a test it ran using Rekognition, Amazon’s facial-recognition technology, which has law enforcement applications. The ACLU ran photos of all members of Congress through the software, matching them up against a database of 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. The results wrongly matched 28 members with photos from the database and showed a disproportionately high percentage of false matches for people of color. While they make up just 20 percent of Congress, people of color accounted for 39 percent of false matches. The stats confirmed the findings of a study that these technologies are simply less accurate on darker-skinned individuals.

    Here, the ACLU explains some of the real-life consequences algorithms-gone-wrong can have on people’s lives:

    If law enforcement is using Amazon Rekognition, it’s not hard to imagine a police officer getting a “match” indicating that a person has a previous concealed-weapon arrest, biasing the officer before an encounter even begins. Or an individual getting a knock on the door from law enforcement, and being questioned or having their home searched, based on a false identification.

    An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives. People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how Rekognition could exacerbate that. A recent incident in San Francisco provides a disturbing illustration of that risk. Police stopped a car, handcuffed an elderly Black woman and forced her to kneel at gunpoint — all because an automatic license plate reader improperly identified her car as a stolen vehicle.

    Safiya U. Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, explained to Media Matters in an email that Saavedra’s misconceptions about algorithms were actually pretty common. She wrote:

    Many people have been taught that math, computer science, and engineering are value-free, neutral, and objective; but the truth is that all kinds of values are imbued into the products and projects that are made by people who work in industries that use these disciplines. We now have decades of empirical research that show the many ways that technologies can be designed and deployed to discriminate, whether intentionally or not. It’s factually incorrect to assert that the technologies designed by people are value-free when we have so much evidence to the contrary. My own research reveals the ways that racism and sexism are reinforced in digital technologies, and what’s at stake when we are ignorant about these projects. I think [Ocasio-Cortez] is challenging us to understand that we need more public policy interventions, and she’s right.

    Technology is only as good as the people who create it. Each person has biases, both implicit and explicit. As Ocasio-Cortez noted during her conversation with Coates, if bias isn’t addressed at the development level, all algorithms will do is automate that bias, potentially making existing problems even worse.