Columns

AI chatbots refuse to ­produce ‘controversial’ ­output - why that’s a free speech problem­

April 22 ,2024

Google recently made headlines globally because its chatbot Gemini generated images of people of color instead of white people in historical settings that featured white people.
:  
Jordi Calvet-Bademunt and Jacob Mchangama
Vanderbilt University

(THE CONVERSATION) Google recently made headlines globally because its chatbot Gemini generated images of people of color instead of white people in historical settings that featured white people. Adobe Firefly’s image creation tool saw similar issues. This led some commentators to complain that AI had gone “woke.” Others suggested these issues resulted from faulty efforts to fight AI bias and better serve a global audience.

The discussions over AI’s political leanings and efforts to fight bias are important. Still, the conversation on AI ignores another crucial issue: What is the AI industry’s approach to free speech, and does it embrace international free speech standards?

We are policy researchers who study free speech, as well as executive director and a research fellow at The Future of Free Speech, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based at Vanderbilt University. In a recent report, we found that generative AI has important shortcomings regarding freedom of expression and access to information.

Generative AI is a type of AI that creates content, like text or images, based on the data it has been trained with. In particular, we found that the use policies of major chatbots do not meet United Nations standards. In practice, this means that AI chatbots often censor output when dealing with issues the companies deem controversial. Without a solid culture of free speech, the companies producing generative AI tools are likely to continue to face backlash in these increasingly polarized times.

—————

Vague and broad use policies


Our report analyzed the use policies of six major AI chatbots, including Google’s Gemini and OpenAI’s ChatGPT. Companies issue policies to set the rules for how people can use their models. With international human rights law as a benchmark, we found that companies’ misinformation and hate speech policies are too vague and expansive. It is worth noting that international human rights law is less protective of free speech than the U.S. First Amendment.

Our analysis found that companies’ hate speech policies contain extremely broad prohibitions. For example, Google bans the generation of “content that promotes or encourages hatred.” Though hate speech is detestable and can cause harm, policies that are as broadly and vaguely defined as Google’s can backfire.

To show how vague and broad use policies can affect users, we tested a range of prompts on controversial topics. We asked chatbots questions like whether transgender women should or should not be allowed to participate in women’s sports tournaments or about the role of European colonialism in the current climate and inequality crises. We did not ask the chatbots to produce hate speech denigrating any side or group. Similar to what some users have reported, the chatbots refused to generate content for 40% of the 140 prompts we used. For example, all chatbots refused to generate posts opposing the participation of transgender women in women’s tournaments. However, most of them did produce posts supporting their participation.

Vaguely phrased policies rely heavily on moderators’ subjective opinions about what hate speech is. Users can also perceive that the rules are unjustly applied and interpret them as too strict or too lenient.

For example, the chatbot Pi bans “content that may spread misinformation.” However, international human rights standards on freedom of expression generally protect misinformation unless a strong justification exists for limits, such as foreign interference in elections.
Otherwise, human rights standards guarantee the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers … through any … media of … choice,” according to a key United Nations convention.

Defining what constitutes accurate information also has political implications. Governments of several countries used rules adopted in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic to repress criticism of the government. More recently, India confronted Google after Gemini noted that some experts consider the policies of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to be fascist.

—————

Free speech culture


There are reasons AI providers may want to adopt restrictive use policies. They may wish to protect their reputations and not be associated with controversial content. If they serve a global audience, they may want to avoid content that is offensive in any region.

In general, AI providers have the right to adopt restrictive policies. They are not bound by international human rights. Still, their market power makes them different from other companies. Users who want to generate AI content will most likely end up using one of the chatbots we analyzed, especially ChatGPT or Gemini.

These companies’ policies have an outsize effect on the right to access information. This effect is likely to increase with generative AI’s integration into search, word processors, email and other applications.

This means society has an interest in ensuring such policies adequately protect free speech. In fact, the Digital Services Act, Europe’s online safety rulebook, requires that so-called “very large online platforms” assess and mitigate “systemic risks.” These risks include negative effects on freedom of expression and information.

This obligation, imperfectly applied so far by the European Commission, illustrates that with great power comes great responsibility. It is unclear how this law will apply to generative AI, but the European Commission has already taken its first actions.

Even where a similar legal obligation does not apply to AI providers, we believe that the companies’ influence should require them to adopt a free speech culture. International human rights provide a useful guiding star on how to responsibly balance the different interests at stake. At least two of the companies we focused on – Google and Anthropic – have recognized as much.

—————

Outright refusals


It’s also important to remember that users have a significant degree of autonomy over the content they see in generative AI. Like search engines, the output users receive greatly depends on their prompts. Therefore, users’ exposure to hate speech and misinformation from generative AI will typically be limited unless they specifically seek it.

This is unlike social media, where people have much less control over their own feeds. Stricter controls, including on AI-generated content, may be justified at the level of social media since they distribute content publicly. For AI providers, we believe that use policies should be less restrictive about what information users can generate than those of social media platforms.

AI companies have other ways to address hate speech and misinformation. For instance, they can provide context or countervailing facts in the content they generate. They can also allow for greater user customization. We believe that chatbots should avoid merely refusing to generate any content altogether. This is unless there are solid public interest grounds, such as preventing child sexual abuse material, something laws prohibit.

Refusals to generate content not only affect fundamental rights to free speech and access to information. They can also push users toward chatbots that specialize in generating hateful content and echo chambers. That would be a worrying outcome.

Tangy goat cheese balances meaty mushrooms in a simple vegetarian salad

April 22 ,2024

A good salad strikes a perfect balance of textures and flavors, but it’s easy to overdo it with rich ingredients, especially when striving to add savory elements.
:  
Christopher Kimball

A good salad strikes a perfect balance of textures and flavors, but it’s easy to overdo it with rich ingredients, especially when striving to add savory elements. For a vegetarian salad that hits all the right notes, combine tangy cheese with meaty mushrooms and bitter greens.
In this recipe from our book “Tuesday Nights Mediterranean,” which features weeknight-friendly meals from the region, we combine roasted portobello mushrooms with fresh goat cheese, toasted walnuts and a combination of bitter radicchio and frisée, adding a touch of sweetness with a honeyed red wine vinaigrette.

To begin, we coat sliced mushrooms with olive oil seasoned with garlic, thyme, salt and pepper to highlight their savory character, then roast until the moisture they release evaporates and the slices begin to brown. The greens and cheese can be prepared during the 10 minutes the mushrooms are in the oven, and the vinaigrette is made as they cool.

We like the texture and color of frisée and radicchio, but if you prefer leafier greens, use watercress or arugula — which tend to be peppery instead of bitter. To make the salad more filling, serve with sliced baguette and garnish individual portions with a poached egg.

Frisée and Mushroom Salad with Goat Cheese and Walnuts

Start to finish: 35 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Ingredients

7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 medium garlic cloves, finely grated

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1 pound portobello mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/2 inch thick

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted, 1/4 cup chopped and reserved separately

1 head frisée (about 7 ounces), torn into bite-size pieces (about 7 cups)

1 small head radicchio (about 6 ounces), thinly sliced (about 2-1/2 cups)

4 ounces fresh goat cheese (chèvre), crumbled

Directions


Heat the oven to 500°F with a rack in the middle position. In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of oil, the garlic, thyme and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and toss to coat. Distribute in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet; reserve the bowl. Roast the mushrooms until the moisture they release has evaporated and the slices begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Let cool while you prepare the dressing and toss the greens.

In the reserved bowl, whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons oil, the vinegar, mustard, honey, chopped walnuts and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Add the frisée and radicchio, then toss to combine.

Mound the greens on a serving platter and arrange the mushrooms on top. Scatter the goat cheese over the salad and sprinkle with the remaining walnuts.

—————

For more recipes, go to Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street at 177milkstreet.com/ap

LEGAL PEOPLE

April 22 ,2024

Jennifer Dukarski, Butzel attorney, shareholder, and leader of the firm’s Connected and Autonomous Mobility Team, will be a guest speaker during the Society of Automotive Analysts (SAA) 11th Annual Automotive Recalls Summit on Wednesday, April 24, in Livonia.
:  
Butzel Long

Jennifer Dukarski, Butzel attorney, shareholder, and leader of the firm’s Connected and Autonomous Mobility Team, will be a guest speaker during the Society of Automotive Analysts (SAA) 11th Annual Automotive Recalls Summit on Wednesday, April 24, in Livonia.

She will discuss recent failures in the transportation industry, the related civil penalties for evading regulatory compliance and what it takes for manufacturing organizations to identify and mitigate recall and compliance risks internally.

Dukarski focuses her practice at the intersection of technology and communications with an emphasis on emerging and disruptive issues: digital media and content, cybersecurity and privacy, infotainment and shared mobility, and connected and autonomous cars. Dukarski has become a national leader in legal issues facing emerging automotive technology including challenging intellectual property issues surrounding data, artificial intelligence and automated systems.

A self-titled “recovering engineer,” Dukarski was named one of the 30 Women Defining the Future of Technology in January 2020 by Warner Communications for her innovative thoughts and contributions to the tech industry.

Dukarski is a graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law (2010). She also is a graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy College of Engineering and Science (1996).

—————

Plunkett Cooney


The appeal of a landmark eminent domain case in the city of Detroit’s storied Poletown neighborhood will be the focus of a symposium on May 9, featuring Plunkett Cooney appellate attorney Mary Massaron.

Massaron, who represented the plaintiffs in County of Wayne v. Hathcock, will lend her perspective to the panel discussion during the Michigan Supreme Court Advocates Guild’s symposium, which will also feature former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young, the author of the Hathcock decision, and former Supreme Court Justice James Ryan, the author of the dissent in Poletown.

The symposium, titled: “The Story of Poletown - A Night of Hathcock, Eminent Domain and the Michigan Supreme Court,” will take place at 5 p.m. in the Partrich Auditorium at Wayne State University Law School. Billed as a night of fun, sophistication and the law, the free event is open to the public, but email registration is required by emailing Lynn Seaks at lynnseaks@micourthistory.com. A short reception will follow the panel discussion at 6:15 p.m.

“This was one of the most high-profile and high-stakes cases in my career,” said Massaron, a partner in Plunkett Cooney’s Bloomfield Hills office. “I think it will be fun and insightful to discuss this case with two former Supreme Court justices who played pivotal roles in the decision.”

A former law clerk to Michigan Supreme Court Justice Patricia J. Boyle, Massaron has handled or supervised the handling of more than 400 appeals, resulting in approximately 150 published opinions, including more than 100 appeals in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Massaron’s appellate advocacy is well known. She has won numerous victories before the Michigan Supreme Court for public- and private-sector clients, overturning multi-million-dollar judgments and establishing new legal principles.

Massaron has been recognized by Best Lawyers in America for Appellate Law and has been repeatedly acknowledged as one of the top 100 lawyers, top 50 business lawyers, top 25 women business lawyers, top 50 female lawyers, and top appellate law practitioners by Michigan Super Lawyers. She was recognized as the Best Lawyers 2017 and 2021 Appellate Practice “Lawyer of the Year” in Bloomfield Hills. DBusiness Magazine named her top appellate lawyer for the past five years.

—————

Giarmarco, Mullins, & Horton, P.C.


Giarmarco, Mullins, & Horton PC welcomes two new members to its Board of Directors. Following a unanimous vote by its shareholders, Alexander Lebedinski and Keela Johnson have been elected to join the board, effective immediately.

Lebedinski specializes in healthcare law and business transactions and represents many healthcare providers. Johnson’s practice focuses on various domestic relations and family law aspects, including high-asset divorce and custody litigation.

—————

Bodman PLC


Bodman PLC is pleased to announce that Ryan C. Washburn has joined the firm as a senior associate in the Business Practice Group.

Washburn assists clients in business and tax planning including the corporate, tax and real estate components of acquisitions and divestitures and the structuring of other complex corporate transactions.

Before joining Bodman, Washburn was an associate with a Michigan-based business and tax law firm where he represented clients on corporate transactions and tax matters. He also worked as a senior tax consultant with a global accounting firm where he helped analyze the tax consequences of transactions and helped clients identify and minimize exposure and risks.

Washburn graduated from University of Illinois College of Law and received an undergraduate degree in Business Administration from Central Michigan University.

As a law student, Washburn served as a law clerk with the Wayne County Circuit Court where he regularly performed legal research and assisted with drafting.


If you want to help schools, throw out the funding myth and demand accountability

April 19 ,2024

School funding is complicated, and people can believe a lot of things that have been addressed and changed decades ago.
:  
Molly Macek and James M. Hohman, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

School funding is complicated, and people can believe a lot of things that have been addressed and changed decades ago. The idea that the state underfunds poor urban districts is often taken as self-evident even when the evidence says otherwise.
Schools in Michigan received an average of $14,475 per student in funding from federal, state and local governments in the 2022-23 school year, according to the latest data available. All large urban districts received more per student than the statewide average.

• Benton Harbor Area Schools received $31,155 per student.

• Flint Community Schools took in $29,640 per student.

• The Detroit Public Schools Community District landed $28,919 per student.

• Saginaw Public Schools got $21,186 per student.

The biggest difference between these districts and others is that they receive larger federal grants, which are geared toward poorer and urban districts. Flint and Benton Harbor receive more federal revenue per student than the typical district gets, on a per-pupil basis, from all sources.

It used to be that districts got most of their money from local property taxes. Schools in wealthy areas received more money than districts in poor places. It has been 30 years, though, since voters approved a funding reform that made school revenues more equitable across the state, essentially cutting the connection between high property values and district funding. Now, the state gives more money to districts that receive less from local property taxes, such as those in low-income urban centers.

The bulk of school funding now comes from a state formula, with minimal variation among the districts. The state sets a minimum per-pupil funding level — known as the foundation allowance — and ensures all districts receive at least that amount. The foundation allowance is funded in part by local property taxes, but the state also fills in where needed with its tax revenue. This ensures that each district receives at least the foundation allowance.

Districts can still use local property taxes to build and maintain school buildings, and this explains some of the variation in revenue between districts. Other differences come from other state programs and federal grants. These programs often target certain types of schools, in poor areas or rural ones, for instance, leaving the districts there with more money than districts in wealthier areas.

The COVID-19 response witnessed this on a grand scale. The school districts in Michigan that received the most aid were the ones in the poorest cities. Flint Community Schools received $51,192 in COVID relief for each of its students — more than any other district in the state. Benton Harbor was the runner-up, receiving $29,502 in COVID aid for each student. Detroit received just under $27,000 per pupil.

To be sure, research generally demonstrates that it is more challenging to educate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why Michigan law requires the state to make sure school districts get an 11.5% increase in their per-pupil foundation allowance for each low-income student they enroll.

Still, many voters believe that urban districts with a high concentration of low-income families get less money than other schools. This belief can be a problem because lawmakers respond to what is popular, or at least their sense of what is popular. If people believe that urban districts are underfunded, then lawmakers will give them more money; regardless of whether they are underfunded or not.

Even though urban districts in poor communities get more money than typical districts, their performance is wanting.

For just one example, students enrolled in Saginaw Public Schools performed significantly worse in English language arts and math on the M-STEP tests in 2023 than they did 2019. Yet Saginaw remains one of the highest-funded districts in the state.
One category of urban public schools does receive much less than the state average: charter schools. Unlike conventional public school districts, charter schools can’t raise extra money for buildings and facilities by levying local property taxes. They also tend
not to receive as much in extra state and federal grants. But disadvantaged students tend to do better there than at comparable district schools, even with fewer dollars available to fund their education.

Ten of the top middle schools in the state are charter schools operated by National Heritage Academies. And the top three elementary schools in Detroit are charter schools, even when compared to schools that selectively enroll their students. Oakland International Academy scored an “A” for its academic performance when compared to peer schools in 2023, according to the Michigan Department of Education’s School Grades system. Yet it only received $15,515 per pupil that same year – much less than its neighboring schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which received nearly $30,000 for each of their students.

The lack of results for funding ought to scream to the public — and to lawmakers — that public schools’ troubles stem from something else than their funding levels. Policymakers should focus on making schools more accountable for their results given their resources, rather than just assuming that districts always and only need more resources.

—————

Dr. Molly Macek is the director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Reagan’s great America shining on a hill twisted into Trump’s dark vision of Christian nationalism

April 19 ,2024

In August 1982, Ronald Reagan’s father-in-law was dying. Nancy Reagan’s beloved dad, Loyal Davis, was an atheist – a troubling fact to the 40th president. So Reagan penned a private, handwritten note in which he recounted how the prayers of colleagues and friends had cured him of a painful stomach ulcer.
:  
Diane Winston, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

(THE CONVERSATION) — In August 1982, Ronald Reagan’s father-in-law was dying. Nancy Reagan’s beloved dad, Loyal Davis, was an atheist – a troubling fact to the 40th president. So Reagan penned a private, handwritten note in which he recounted how the prayers of colleagues and friends had cured him of a painful stomach ulcer.

Giving hope for what lay beyond, Reagan entreated the older man, “We’ve been promised this is only a part of life and that a greater life, a greater glory awaits us … and all that is required is that you believe and tell God you put yourself in his hands.”

For decades, some of Reagan’s critics have questioned his religiosity, noting he rarely went to church. But the missive to his father-in-law reveals a deep and heartfelt faith. That faith also factored heavily into his political stands and policies, as I discuss in my book “Righting the American Dream: How the Media Mainstreamed Reagan’s Evangelical Vision.”

In recent years, Donald Trump, another former president and the current Republican presidential candidate, has often spoken about his faith, posing for photo ops with right-wing preachers and praising his “favorite book” – the Bible.

The latest such demonstration was a video in which Trump promoted sales of a pricey US$59.99 version of the Bible. “Let’s make America pray again,” he urged viewers. “As we lead into Good Friday and Easter, I encourage you to get a copy of the God Bless the USA Bible.”

While Reagan and Trump – two of the most media-savvy Republican presidents – used religion to advance their political visions, their messages and missions are starkly different.

—————

Why religion plays a part in politics


In my book, I explain that underlying American politics is a religious vision that links citizens to civic values. The most prevalent vision is that God blessed America and tasked its citizens with spreading freedom and democracy. It’s an idea that has undergirded Americans’ patriotism and inspired American domestic and foreign policies for decades.

Reagan telegraphed belief in a God-blessed America by describing the United States as “a shining city on a hill.” Reagan flipped the original meaning of a Biblical phrase from a 17th century Puritan sermon. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus warns that the world will judge whether or not his disciples, a symbolic city on a hill, stick to their ideals. By adding “shining,” Reagan sanctified American exceptionalism and the United States’ role as a global model of freedom.

Once elected, Reagan sought practical ways to apply his faith in freedom, which, like many evangelicals, he believed came from God. By cutting taxes, ending industry regulations and privatizing government functions, he hoped to give individuals more economic and political freedom.

Reagan’s love of freedom also fueled his hostility to the Soviet Union. He labeled its communist government “an evil empire,” because it denied its citizens freedom. Casting a geopolitical stance as a cosmic battle between good and evil, Reagan made defeating communism a religious calling.

I argue that Reagan’s evangelical vision was mainstreamed through the media, which reported his interviews and public statements. This vision was not always apparent, but Americans liked his policies even if they missed their religious dimension. In other words, when Reagan proposed allowing the free market to determine the economy, limiting federal power and standing up for democracy worldwide, one didn’t need to be an evangelical to agree.

—————

A new religious vision


Trump saw an opening for a new kind of religiously tinged politics when he ran for president in 2016. But unlike Reagan’s vision of spreading freedom and democracy here and abroad, Trump’s vision sticks closer to home.

I would argue that Trump’s religious vision is rooted in white Christian nationalism, the belief that the white Christians who founded America hoped to spread Protestant beliefs and ideals. According to white Christian nationalists, the founders also wanted to limit the influence of non-Christian immigrants and enslaved Africans.

Likewise, Trump’s rhetoric, mainstreamed by the media, portrays “real” Americans as white Christians. Many of these are men and women fearful that secularists and religious, racial and ethnic minorities want to replace, if not eliminate, them.

By most measures, Trump is not personally religious, although supporters contest that claim. But he has convinced conservative Americans, especially white evangelicals, that he is “God’s instrument on earth.”

When confronted with his financial misconduct, sexual crimes and outrageous lies, backers say that God works through flawed men. And evidence of that work – the U.S. Supreme Court overturning abortion rights, building the border wall and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – has won him their support.

Trump’s mainstreaming of white Christian nationalism is evident in his latest scheme. The God Bless the USA Bible sports an American flag on its cover. Included with scripture is the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Pledge of Allegiance and the handwritten lyrics to singer Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” A portion of the sales will benefit Trump’s organization.

—————

Christianity and nationalism hand in hand


Trump rejects America’s role as the “shining city on a hill” and its mission to spread freedom and democracy. His goal is to restore what he calls the “founding fathers’ vision.” It’s a vision shared by Americans who think the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, despite proof to the contrary.

Religion can be a force for good or ill. Reagan believed that his religious vision would promote individual freedom and spread democracy worldwide. Americans may agree or disagree on whether he was successful and at what cost.

But Trump’s religious vision – one that hawks Bibles, disparages democracy and mocks governance – isn’t one that Reagan would recognize.

‘The former guy’ versus ‘Sleepy Joe’ – why Biden and Trump are loath to utter each other’s name

April 19 ,2024

During his 2024 State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden mentioned his presumptive challenger, Donald Trump, 15 times – but never once by name.
:  
Roger J. Kreuz, University of Memphis

(THE CONVERSATION) — During his 2024 State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden mentioned his presumptive challenger, Donald Trump, 15 times – but never once by name.

Instead, Biden referred to him as “my predecessor” 13 times. He also called him a “former Republican president” and a “former American president.”

These weren’t mistakes or memory lapses – the circumlocutions appeared in the president’s prepared remarks provided by the White House.

Instead, Biden was employing a rhetorical tactic in which politicians do everything except use their opponent’s actual name. In doing so, they subtly deprive their opposition of equal standing or legitimacy.

—————

‘He who must not be named’


Biden’s predilection for avoiding Trump’s name is an example of what political activist Majid Nawaz dubbed the “Voldemort effect.”

Nawas recycled the term from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, in which wizards employ phrases like “you know who” and “he who must not be named” to refer to Lord Voldemort.

The Voldemort effect is just another name for a cardinal principle of advertising: never mention your competitor by name. Doing so grants one’s rivals a certain degree of exposure and legitimacy.

One study of this phenomenon found that televised advertisements include comparisons between products half the time. However, only about 5% actually mention the advertiser’s competitor by name.

So when Biden calls Trump “my predecessor” or “the former guy” – as he did during a 2021 town hall – he’s avoiding recognizing his rival as a peer and an equal.

—————

The illusory truth effect


Trump, on the other hand, makes use of a different strategy to diminish his political opponents: his infamous nicknames.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have received ignominious monikers.

Trump branded Jeb Bush as “Low Energy Jeb,” Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted” and Mitch McConnell as “Broken Old Crow.” Adam Schiff became “Pencil Neck,” Biden was christened “Sleepy Joe,” and Mike Bloomberg was derided as “Mini Mike.”

By employing nicknames – and repeating them ad nauseam – Trump makes use of a phenomenon called the illusory truth effect, in which repeated information comes to be accepted as fact, no matter its truthfulness.

In daily life, we often need to quickly distinguish between truths and falsehoods. And if we’ve repeatedly seen or heard something, we can typically recall it more easily. Since accurate information is typically encountered more frequently than the occasional fabrication, this rule of thumb is a useful one.

But politicians can exploit illusory truth by repeatedly branding someone a liar, a danger or, as Trump is wont to do, “crooked.” And Biden has taken a page from Trump’s playbook by branding the Republicans as the “MAGA Republican Party.”

—————

Othering in action


Trump also employs a different strategy to demean his political opponents: othering.

During his 2016 campaign bid, Trump made a point of emphasizing Obama’s middle name, Hussein, to link him to the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

He often mispronounces the first name of Vice President Kamala Harris, and during the 2024 Republican primaries, Trump took to referring to Nikki Haley as “Nimbra,” a corruption of her Punjabi first name, Nimarata.

By drawing attention to the seemingly exotic names of Obama, Harris and Haley, Trump casts them as foreigners, tapping into the xenophobia that animates some of his supporters.

Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” wrote that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Political campaigns, however, are anything but sweet, and voters will likely endure more circumlocutions and derogatory nicknames in the coming months as the battle between “the former guy” and “Sleepy Joe” heats up.