citizen journalists

Game Theory, citizen journalists, and media that can’t keep up

Eric Garland Media trends 11 Comments

The crisis of Donald Trump’s collusion with the Russian Federation has given rise to a new term online: citizen journalists. This new “job title” has emerged because, frankly, the major media outlets upon which we depend have failed to keep up with the sheer torrent of new, alarming updates on the perversion of American governance. The actions of the Trump Administration and its complicit legislative branch produce so many questions that, in some sense, it is entirely understandable that the traditional news media cannot react promptly enough to brace for the next hideous update.

That said, much of the media’s failure to keep up with Trump-Russia is that they lack a deep enough pool of talent to understand the complexities of the matter, which are legion:

  • Intelligence and national security
  • Offshore banking
  • Real estate
  • Structured finance
  • Big data and social networks
  • Clandestine extreme political movements

Plus, the Trump-Russia story is about an extraordinary combination of the above at an unusual moment in American political life. It makes sense that no one news outlet could maintain in-house talent – or even a network of freelancers – that could piece together narratives in time for the next outrage.

Enter the citizen journalists

Into this void stepped the so-called citizen journalists. Armed with specialized skills from their careers and alarmed for the future of their country, a new group of voices have emerged. Velocity being the most important factor, citizen journalists have mainly emerged from Twitter, where the rapid-fire flow of data and social networking suit this mission the best.

In a few short months, people like Dr. Sarah Kendzior, Andrea Chalupa, John SchindlerLouise Mensch, Claude Taylor, and many others have attracted hundreds of thousands of followers as citizens search for some sense of just what the hell might be going on in the surreal nightmare of Trump’s administration. Drawing from their own deep professional experiences, they and others have transcended the bounds of traditional journalism and shown the public just where this awful story was headed – and why to keep hope alive.

Not everyone has been happy about this.

For reasons as paltry as they are irrelevant, several media outlets have run pieces about these new voices that range from the merely bitter to the nearly libelous. Because these accounts – each with their own focus, style, and types of content – have not passed each sentence through a “major” media masthead, these outlets have seen fit to label the output that has attracted so many readers as “conspiracy theories.” Despite having professional experience ranging from PhD-level regional expertise, membership in the UK parliament, years as a White House staffer, and more, these articles have asserted that there is no credibility inherent in any of the work attracting attention for rationales that rarely depart from the ad hominem. Much more scurrilously, there is a shameful tendency to bandy about accusations of mental illness. Unless Trump repealed HIPAA laws, that’s quite ironic coming right next to complaints that certain citizen journalists are insufficiently sourced.

I won’t be providing any of these outlets pageviews to show advertisers, but I will highlight the following phrase that recently caught my attention:

“No one sane would leak any valuable information to a person who isn’t a journalist.”

American media has a penchant for hiring recent Ivy League grads with little more than entitlement and gumption to produce analysis-light and error-prone pabulum under prestigious looking JPEG headers. In other words, they don’t even hire journalists. For example, the author of the above quote has ten full months experience and, hilariously, no degree in journalism. Or career experience in national security. Or intelligence methodologies. Or structured finance. Or Eastern European regional studies. Nor, clearly, any experience cultivating sources who can provide context that can improve stories under development – which isn’t the same as “leaks,” incidentally.

In any event, none of this lack of merit stopped the author or editor from running a hit piece against people with PhDs, decades of relevant professional experience, and an annoying habit of stealing scoops. It’s a sad professional choice to write and publish such vitriol, really – but at least these quasi-journalists have a reassuring amount of mediocre company these past six months.

Back in the world of adult professionals, the real mark of a journalist, intelligence analyst, or other narrative-creating writer is whether their work is accurate and/or predictive. And this gets insufficient discussion.

Enter the citizen intelligence analyst

Though I’m a stickler to call myself an analyst, I have been happily lumped in with the citizen journalists, a brilliant, merry, and entertaining band without whom this maelstrom of political failure would never been mentally survivable. Also, they’ve been better curators and creators than most of the media, so I’ve learned a ton from them. (Personal note: Love you guys, we’re almost there!) 

My membership in this group came early when I wrote a 127-tweet “thread” on Twitter that apparently made a mark. “Guys, it’s time for some game theory” was the beginning of my own explanation of:

  • how Trump got elected
  • why it was such a danger to the Republic
  • that American institutions would fight back against Russian political warfare
  • that we would win, perchance to take the country down a better path

I was flattered to receive effusive praise from some people whose work I’ve loved for years, and overwhelmed by the sudden rush of readership. But the reviews, of course, were not all positive. The tens of thousands of coordinated bot attacks were fairly negative, as were the hard-left democratic socialists who so hated Hillary Clinton that they (again, ironically) viewed any analysis of Russian active measures as a conspiracy against their narrative that Bernie Would Have Won. And then there was this cadre of middling journalistic aspirants, who just plain-old didn’t like my style.

Hey, I’m over forty. I know that I’m not for everyone! Celine Dion and Slayer have different fan bases, you know?

But what gets me is that despite the snark from quasi-journalists, nobody has ever actually taken issue with any single fact or theory I presented in the Game Theory thread of exactly six months ago. There were whole-cloth rejections of the theory based on my limited experience as a globally-recognized expert of intelligence methodologies, author of several books, and consultant to dozens of corporations and governments over 20 years. There was speculation about my relationship to methamphetamines due to a single Adderall joke in one tweet that one time. But nobody really asked, hey, was Game Theory an accurate prediction of the near-term future?

Well, six months later, as Trump has let Russians into the Oval Office to take propaganda photos and Jim Comey just got fired for that investigation I told everyone was going on – we have the perfect chance to go back and check.

Tweet by tweet – was Game Theory accurate way back on December 11, 2016?

Let’s check!

Fact check of Game Theory six months hence

This thing is on T-shirts and coffee cups and people know the phrase but don’t even know where it comes from, so let’s jump right in.

People kept expecting Obama to fly in with a cape, or for Hillary to protest. I knew that this was a complex game for how to repel the then-obvious Russian intelligence operation while maintaining sanctity of US institutions and minimizing damage. The “game theory” part was not a reference to economics or John Nash, but strategic wargaming which lets decision makers test their assumptions in advance of conflict.

Here I am discussing this with my partners at Aurora WDC, a consultancy with a best-in-class wargaming practice.

Sorry for all the hyperventilation this caused among economics professors. Check.

Putin wants to retain power by messing with the West and looking “studly” to the Russian people so they don’t rise up against his kleptocracy, which they’ve since doneCheck.

U.S. intelligence community officials have confirmed that Russia has been at this for years, with largely the same goals. Check.

We’ve already seen the Russians drive their puppet to hassle NATO allies, harass Five-Eyes intelligence partners, and disrupt key trade relationshipsCheck.

Behold Russia’s aircraft carrier.

Russia’s hacker game is stronger these days. Check.

Well, it worked, right? Quod erat demonstrandum. And the Western Intelligence Community is both horrified and deeply impressed. Clever. A little too cleverCheck.

Things got weird. Witness this cool slideshow and ask…well, ask Matt Taibbi. Check.

I don’t agree with this analysis, but here is an argument that Western “refusal to accept Russia as equal” is what caused Putin. It’s fair to say, however, that proud people with empires don’t like slipping in status. America feels like it’s doing the same thing, and we’ve gone half-way nuts. Check.

Check out Heritage Foundation’s analysis of Putin’s rise by Ariel Cohen from way back in 2000. Nailed it. There’s some good futures work. Their concerns are the current reality. Check.

Instead of frivolous and lazy, I might put “cocky and growing insensitive to serious strategic risks.” Could be better.

Russia’s specialty is that they don’t create things that are brand new in their active measures – they wait for you to create something legit – which I believe Wikileaks was, originally – and subvert for their use. Check.

rumsfeld WMD

Ahem. Check.

Please see the declassified report on Snowden’s exfiltration of NSA documentsCheck.

Sure enough, Greenwald came at me a few hours after this, and he was as courteous, professional, rigorous, and honest as…well…as he usually is. MCCARTHYISMS!!! Check.

The NSA caught intercepts of Russians laughing about Trump’s victory. (Reported three weeks after this thread was published.) I’m assuming they had a good laugh about how many Americans swallowed this nonsense. Check.

Manning was the appetizer, and Snowden’s cache of NSA documents was a sumptuous meal. Check.

The sheer wisdom and foresight of this towering figure. Check.

They thought I was ridiculous for using this mockingly, but then…KellyAnne. She delivers. Like Sarah Palin, but demonically evil. Check.

Journalism! Where both China AND Russia get NSA docs! But it’s not Ed’s fault! JOURNAMALISMS! Check.

Greenwald’s husband is a Brazilian national – not a U.S. ally, and certainly not one for intelligence matters. The guy is traipsing through a Five-Eyes nation airport (Heathrow) with stolen top secret documents and gets detained and OH NO IT’S A CRIME AGAINST THE JOURNALISMS. *eye-roll*

Overtaken by events. Check.

Yeah. Weird. I wonder what that might portend. Check.

I don’t have proof on the bourbon. I don’t need proof on the vodka. Hey, guys, take a victory lap – sweet Op! We respect our adversaries. They do clever work. Check.

Everyone in the Intelligence Community I know has sat patiently through some well-meaning, ill-informed conversations on just how heroic, and what do you mean “national security,” and bla-bla-bla ANOTHER ROUND, PLEASE? MAKE IT A DOUBLE. Check.

When he made that comment, it was a little like the insane photo-ops with Trump today – the Russkis give you a wink and a smile just to provoke you. “Ed. Weird guy. Wonder why he did it? Oh well.” LOLOLLLLZZZZZ. Check.

Using the Internet to make white Americans love both Nazism and Russians simultaneously.

Like, where the hell did they come up with this guy? Check.

That’s where the East Coast Media Elite Beating Up the GOP meme got started. Damn, it’s durable. Check.

It’s funny: first the media, now the “Deep State.” Maybe don’t act like a criminal or a traitor? Check.

“I hate the Media! Check out this article…!” Check.

Reality started to bifurcate. We can see how dangerous this is now. Check.

Yup. Check.

THE GUYS AT AEI ARE NOW TOTALLY REASONABLE AND PATRIOTIC AND WE RETWEET EACH OTHER and damn this has been an interesting shift. But the Iraq War thing, sorry, that’s still on your permanent record. The tweet stands for that reason. Check.

Pat Robertson. Check.

Limbaugh. Check.

Fox. Check.

The administration started actually using the term “alternative facts” since I wrote this. Check.

Trump of course has now made Bush look like Augustus Caesar. Check.

Yay. Check.

A source told me that discussion of invading Iraq started within 48 hours of the Administration’s start…as a “hypothetical.” Check.

We were super pissed about 9/11, and I was trying to reflect the unsophisticated anger of that moment, though I don’t like the tone now. But that’s what we did, so. Check.

Conversation from 2003: “Iraq? They don’t have a f**king SuperSoaker there.” Check.

No Fly Zone. Also, if we see a radar signal, BOOM. Check.

The other threat is a pain. Check.

Real analysts, they knew. And true enough, it ended up sucking about as much as we thought. Check.

They brought in Andy Card from GM. Treated it like marketing. Brilliant PR work on a shitty policy. Check.


Yup. Check.

So, like, why did we go to war…? Check.

God, they actually tried that gambit. Craven. Check.

NGA came through with one of the only public successes for the IC in that time period. They worked tirelessly to get first responders maps of the area to save lives and protect American assets. True professionals. Check.

And America entered a second moment of darkness, this time self-inflicted. Check.

Things are about to get weird as the country splits apart. Check.

Obama’s a moderate in damn near everything, but they saw tan skin and lost their minds. Check.

See current events. Check.

Jill Stein on one side, Mike Flynn on the other. Just like at dinner. Check.

Killary fake news on one side…and Pizzagate on the other. Elegant. Nice that Facebook played along so well. Check.

White supremacy is a helluva drug. Check.

It hurt my soul to hear New Englanders start to sound like Confederate historical revisionists. Check.

Did they ever! Check.

Since I wrote this, a source let me know just how much they profiled people like me in advance. Almost like they got government files kept on US media figures…. Check.

“Alternative facts.” Check.

Old and busted: Media bias.

New hotness: Media conspiracy to steal all the Constitutions MAGA!!!! Check.

True story and direct quotes! Check.

2013. It starts to get ugly. Check.

I didn’t plan this, so I’m stopping writing and going, “Whoa…this is…oh, well, thanks for sticking with me!” Check.

Jesus. That happened. Check.

Yup. Check.

They’re still trying it. Check.

Like the dog that caught the car. Check.

The Russians are going to wish they just got a mouthpiece. Check.

Since corroborated by The Dossier, about which my colleagues and I had heard for many weeks. Check.

Comey: Trump-Russia launched in JulyCheck.

Both Comey and Obama White House officials have discussed their wrestling with this dilemma. Check.

They chose 1. Yes. 2. Yes and 3. No, and hate that those were the best choices. Check.

Their hackers ran a victory lapCheck.

She got out of Dodge. He told Trump, “We know about Flynn. Don’t.” Check.

They were selling America’s foreign policy to Ambassador Kislyak for cash at Trump Tower. Allegedly. But didn’t bother to visit State or DoD. Check.

Trump went on to pick fights with the entire IC. McCain and Graham…well, they’ve just kept this thing rolling forward. Check.

It wasn’t a partisan issue. Obama made every preparation. He set the traps for incoming traitors. Patriots have worked tirelessly. None of this is easy. CHECK.

And I still write tonight with great hope.

As I write this, there are indictments to unseal, evidence to present to a candid world, an enemy to push back, traitors to punish, and a nation to reclaim.

Looking at the evidence at the time, and given my trust in the brave men and women I know in the United States Government, I believed we would get here.

It was part analysis and part hope.

What you read above isn’t the typical output of journalism – on which I depend! – but this moment has been anything but typical, so I guess that’s why it reached people.

We still have much work to do. Let’s focus on what matters.

  • Ellie

    I’ve been reading your tweets for a few months and have found you to be insightful. This might be a bit off topic, but I just want to say that it is really hard for someone who’s just a citizen to know who to trust. I feel I can assume that articles that David Farenthold or Eric Lipton write are going to have good sources and be fact-checked because they work for larger organizations that require it. For the citizen journalists, it can take time to understand and trust them. I know all of the names you mentioned above, but I’ve also heard other journalistic people on twitter say negative things about some of them. And some of the journalists you mentioned say negative things about analysts on CNN/MSNBC who have written books based on their experiences and I thought would be trustworthy, and it’s like argh! Who do I listen to? (At times it feels like there are cliques or camps of citizen journalists). Also a concern is that I worry the ones I do trust are just echoing what I want to be true, or echo what I fear about this administration.

    Anyway. I do enjoy your tweet storms.

    • kimbystephens

      I completely understand the way you feel. I’ve also thought long and hard about every single thing you mentioned above. I think in these situations, all we can do is trust our instincts on who to believe and keep an open mind in case new info reveals itself about those we follow that could change our minds. Generally, people on our side of the political aisle are the more open-minded in the bunch, so hopefully it will come natural for us to use this gift in these circumstances. I really believe that those of us in the Resistance come from a good, kind, and sympathetic place at our core and only want what’s best for he country, so karmically speaking, I think we’re less likely to be steered wrong. (hopefully!)

  • Tiffany Eggers

    You are an example of how citizen journalists can be amazing. Thanks for all of your great work. My despair in the MSM has been replaced in the joy of finding smart, unaffected voices that have a great deal to say. This is one wonderful things to have come out of the past 2 years of frustration. I feel my patriotism rise in your story. Keep on doing what you do.

    “so much depends

    a red wheel

    glazed with rain

    beside the white

  • Francesca

    Hello sir. I want to thank you for this incredible article. I wish we could see you on MSM. I have to admit some of this is a little above my head, but I am always willing to learn. I followed you for a while but for some odd reason you blocked me. So I was extremely happy when Louise M posted this I was elated to be able to read it.
    I am not sure what I did but that’s nor here or there. Glad I can join your insider email list.
    You are right on so many points. I feel as though we are starved for true information. I think there are a lot of people who either don’t care or too lazy to learn. I am a self educated woman. I speak 3 languages. I have been fortunate enough to have a huge appetite for knowledge. My grandfather told me you can read you can learn. Funny!
    I look forward to receiving emails from you.
    Please never stop being the light of information.
    Thank you

    • kimbystephens

      You may only be blocked because Eric, and many others like him, have to use programs that block people who meet certain criteria on Twitter that matches what bots have. You may just be unlucky enough to have something small in common with a bot and that’s all. Having few followers on Twitter is even enough for these programs to include you in mass-blocking, so I’m sure he didn’t personally block you. People like Eric get trolled so mercilessly by bots and common jerks that they can’t function on Twitter w/out these programs sometimes. Louise used one of these programs until recently too but now has some other method she uses.
      Your comment above is very kind and I’m sure he will appreciate your support when he reads it.
      Hope this explanation helps. Hang in there & RESIST!

  • dlbvet

    Holy crow. I read every single word, alternating between hyperventilating and trying to calm down. I’ve been following several of the “sources” you named above for a while now and have felt some comfort in knowing there are those working tirelessly to find a path forward.
    I’ve been struggling to understand the depths of what they have been putting together, but most of the time it’s WAY over my head. I’m not much for the tech stuff.
    I’ll come back to this post several times I expect…to view the links, to get a little perspective…or hope.
    I missed the original Tweetstorm in December, but I appreciate how you’ve taken it apart and analyzed it 6 months out.

  • Eric Kangas

    I remember reading this as you were tweeting it out in December, thinking, man this is good stuff. And reading some other people’s reactions — WTF is this??! This isn’t game theory! This guy is way off on the deep end.

    Those were depressing times, hoping that the electoral college would actually do it’s duty to vote against a demagogue, but knowing that it probably wouldn’t really happen. Well looks like the situation is getting worse and worse for Trump, but the danger is still up ahead.

    As in an important chess game against a strong opponent, we mustn’t lose clarity or focus until the very end, as there are still many pitfalls ahead.

  • Dan Gaulin

    Great stuff as always. Perhaps it is your professional background, but you are one of the few who honestly look back at your work. The US needs more honest post-mortem analysis especially in media and government.

    One thread to look at when you write up your analysis of the news media is how the splintering and desperation of the news media and the vitriol directed at citizen-journalists was first seen in the sports media. I like Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy. “Is (Roger) Clemons the Antichrist” alone should put him in the Hall of Fame, but I understand that not everyone does. That said, the pushback he got from the sportswriting establishment was intense despite his obvious talent and interesting point of view. Given that the establishment (especially newspaper sports sections) were hemorrhaging jobs at the time, some degree of negative reaction was to be expected. But I would add that job insecurity alone was at work – there was some measure of jealousy (why didn’t I think of a Every Joe plus Pop Culture point of view) and some measure of initiation-style hazing (you need to pay your dues – carry my bags rookie) to the mix. I see a lot of the same thing happened today in the news media.

    New thought – historically the media in the US was in control of very wealthy families. Even in my hometown of Holyoke, MA, one of the oldest and richest families owned the local newspaper. Maybe we went through a time period when our wealthy families are not as public-spirited as before and maybe, with Bezos’ purchase of Washington Post and John Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe, there is a slight movement back to a more old-fashioned benevolent (probably too strong a word, how about less malevolent) wealthy class moving back into media. Put another way, I imagine we always had some truly evil rich folks mucking things up (the elder Koch, most prominently), it just seems like we have a lot more of the bad ones throwing there weight around and lot fewer of the good ones.

  • Frank Galpin

    I am calculating how many tanks of gas it would take in my Toyota to drive to Missouri to shake your hand and buy you a nice dinner for this. Thank you for all you’ve done.

  • Pat Duff

    Glad I read this; your background. Mighty fine analysis.

  • Adrienne Young

    I followed you unfollowed you, you pissed me off and then I would go back and think wth was I pissed off at and then refollow you. I knew who you were, and I would think why the hell did he say that shit, or I would sit and laugh..But no matter how many times I unfollowed, which you probably didn’t give two hoots about you always drew me back in. ‘I am 60, and straight up I had no clue who to follow except I knew I didn’t and wasn’t following the Trump regime, Johnson had no clue where Aleppo was and Jill Stein gave me the creepy crawlies. Bernie had the talk but another old white man just was not gonna get it for me..I’m 60 and experience Nixon first hand. You did everything one a journalist , a true journalist is supposed to made me feel.. have made this fight easier