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Heather Cox RichardsonOct 24

There are three stories in the news today that seem to me to add up to a larger picture.

First is the story of money laundering, which seems suddenly to be all over the news. Today we learned that federal prosecutors in Detroit have broken into a massive money-laundering operation between the United States and the United Arab Emirates called “The Shadow Exchange.” They confiscated $12 million and suggest this is the tip of the iceberg.

This story comes just weeks after the release of the Pandora Papers, which detailed the ways in which the world’s wealthy hide money. The United States is one of the money-laundering capitals of the world, and the consequences of our lax financial legislation are coming home to roost. Experts say that because of the lack of transparency required in our financial transactions, hundreds of billions of dollars are laundered in the U.S. every year. 

Another story from earlier in the month by Casey Michel in Politico reveals what happened to a small town in Illinois when a Ukrainian oligarch bought a factory there apparently in order to launder money. The townspeople believed they were looking at a new, prosperous future with new investment in the town, only to watch the abandoned factory decay. And then, miraculously, another investor appeared, but that man, too, seems to have been using the purchase simply to launder money. Now, the factory is decrepit and must be dismantled at great cost to the town, along with the townspeople’s dreams.

The second story that caught my attention today is the continuing news dropping from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Today we learned that a Facebook researcher created a profile that appeared to be of a political conservative North Carolina mother and that within five days, Facebook’s algorithm was steering the profile toward QAnon, a conspiracy theory touting then-president Trump as a secret warrior against a widespread pedophilia ring in the highest levels of government.

Although the fake profile did not follow those recommended groups, the profile was then inundated with groups and pages full of hate speech and disinformation. Other stories recently have emphasized that Facebook officials knew of the radicalization of users before the January 6 insurrection but declined to address the issue.

People often make the mistake of thinking that Facebook profits from the advertising it sells to users, but in fact the system works the opposite way. A media company profits from packaging users to sell to advertisers. Facebook has sliced and diced its users so that it can sell us with pinpoint accuracy to political interests eager to divide us or drive our votes. 

It appears we now have hard evidence that the company knew its algorithms were peddling disinformation to divide us, and it did not fix them.  

Tonight’s third story is that former president Trump’s loyalists set up a “command center” in mid-December at Washington, D.C.’s famous Willard Hotel to try to overturn the election. Those meeting to come up with a scheme to overturn the will of the voters included John Eastman, who wrote the memo outlining how Vice President Mike Pence could refuse to count the electors for certain states and thus throw the election to Trump; Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani; adviser Stephen K. Bannon; former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, a convicted felon pardoned by Trump; One America News reporter Christina Bobb; and Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn.

It is significant that as this story has hit the news, Eastman, the author of the infamous memo, is running from it. He went to the respected conservative magazine National Review to argue, quite preposterously, that his memo was simply a thought exercise that he did not endorse. 

The very choice of the Willard, rather than Trump’s own hotel, suggests an attempt to create distance from the president, but Kerik, who rented the rooms, billed the Trump campaign for the $55,000 hotel bill. (Those participating are likely to discover that campaign activity is not part of official duties and so cannot be covered by executive privilege.) 

To me, these three stories are as illustrative of this moment as the three crucial stories in the January 1903 edition of McClure’s Magazine were of the corruption that led to the Progressive Era. In that famous 1903 magazine, investigative journalists Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell exposed the political and corporate corruption that were silencing the voices of individuals in the United States and driving them into poverty.

The first two of today’s stories suggest the rise of global capital in our financial system and its power over us through the dominant influence of social media, a new technology most of us don’t understand particularly well. That power has led to the third story: the attempt of a president who has lost an election to turn to a Big Lie, spread through social media, that his victory has been stolen from him, and that his supporters must take matters into their own hands. 

KIeptocrats, autocrats, and criminals are making a strong bid to control our country.

Will they succeed? 

Maybe. But in a similar moment after 1903, the American people reasserted the rule of law.

Notes:

https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/facebook-knew-radicalized-users-rcna3581

https://www.stripes.com/theaters/us/2021-10-23/money-laundering-operation-us-dubai-3347270.html

https://newrepublic.com/article/162321/america-money-laundering-capital-fincen

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/10/17/ukrainian-oligarch-midwestern-factory-town-dirty-money-american-heartland-michel-kleptocracy-515948

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/10/17/ukrainian-oligarch-midwestern-factory-town-dirty-money-american-heartland-michel-kleptocracy-515948

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/10/22/jan-6-capitol-riot-facebook/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/willard-trump-eastman-giuliani-bannon/2021/10/23/c45bd2d4-3281-11ec-9241-aad8e48f01ff_story.html

Ellen F. Fitzpatrick, Muckraking: Three Landmark Articles (Bedford/St. Martin’s: 1994).

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