Your Own Gravity Your Own Gravity     Categories     About     Feed    

Debunking Bullshit: Trump's 2017 Inauguration Crowd Size Claims

Technology can be a great thing, unless you are trying to hide something.

The Trump administration has claimed, with absurd certainty and in conflict with widespread reports to the contrary, that the 2017 Presidential Inauguration was, as White House press secretary Sean Spicer angrily put it, “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” Thankfully, none of us needs to be misled, willingly or otherwise. Some pretty simple technology allows everyone to get a sense of how many people attended the inauguration. If you have the curiosity and small amount of drive to chase down the facts, you certainly can do that for yourself and see how the Trump administration is wrong (I’ll speculate why this issue seems so important to them at the end of this post).

Let’s start with the Washington Metro system ridership numbers, which come from mechanical turnstiles with electronic counters. The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) put out the data from the Metro system (DC’s subway) for the last four inaugurations as of 11:00 am on each of those days:

  • 2017 (Trump): 193,000 trips
  • 2013 (Obama): 317,000 trips
  • 2009 (Obama): 513,000 trips
  • 2005 (Bush): 197,000 trips

On Saturday, Spicer made the case to reporters from a quickly arranged briefing, took no questions, and then walked out. I watched it on TV. It was bizarre. Among the specifics Spicer cited was the following false claim, (possibly) comparing the 2017 daily ridership number with the 2013 11:00 am number:

We know that 420,000 people used D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural…

Spicer either got mixed up, or he was deliberately misleading us. The 11:00 am number of 193,000 trips for this inauguration was 60% of the similar 2013 inauguration figure, and only 37% of the 2009 figure. That’s one indication of the crowd size.

In addition to the real Metro ridership figures, there are photos and videos posted, from the many cameras in people’s pockets and in locations around the city. Look at the photos from Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and this year’s:

The analysis by Keith Still, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, estimates that the crowd on the National Mall on Friday was about one-third the size of Mr. Obama’s. Professor Still was a crowd safety consultant for the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and has advised the Saudi government on crowds for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

PBS has a great time-lapse video of the inauguration crowd on the Mall, starting at sunrise, which shows the Mall was not at capacity at any time before or during the ceremony.

Katy Tur from NBC posted a video, which shows empty stands along the parade route.

Some analysis from The Atlantic:

Steve Doig, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, has provided estimates of crowds at past inaugurals, and is well-versed in the challenges they present. “There’s no turnstiles; you didn’t have to buy tickets … so the standard metrics for measuring a contained crowd are not available,” he said. “The fallback is overhead imagery.” That allows experts to estimate the density of the crowd, and divide it by the area it covers, to produce “a reality-based estimate of the crowd.” Based on the photographs available in the media showing the part of the crowd that was on the mall, he said, “the claim that this is the largest ever is ludicrous on its face.”

And from Fox News:

THE FACTS: Trump is wrong. Photos of the National Mall from his inauguration make clear that the crowd did not extend to the Washington Monument. Large swaths of empty space are visible on the Mall.

Thin crowds and partially empty bleachers also dotted the inaugural parade route. Hotels across the District of Columbia reported vacancies, a rarity for an event as large as a presidential inauguration.

And ridership on the Washington’s Metro system didn’t match that of recent inaugurations. As of 11 a.m. that day, there were 193,000 trips taken, according to the transit service’s Twitter account. At the same hour eight years ago, there had been 513,000 trips. Four years later, there were 317,000 for Obama’s second inauguration.

All the evidence shows that this inauguration was not as well attended as either of the previous two inaugurations. But leaving aside the actual WMATA numbers and photos used to get crowd size estimates – which are important, because they are the only data-based indications we have – the more pertinent issue seems to be how crucial the Trump team believes it is to push back on the facts about his apparent popularity. Of course, Trump was the impetus for this, taking time before Spicer’s briefing on Saturday in his remarks at the CIA Memorial Wall to criticize the reported crowd estimates as false.

After the comments from Trump and Spicer, the administration’s assault continued Sunday morning with Kellyanne Conway on NBC’s Meet the Press, in which she described Spicer’s comments as “alternative facts”, which sounds like a derogatory term but apparently is not:

Asked on “Meet the Press” why Spicer used his first appearance before the press to dispute a minimal issue like the inauguration crowd size, and why he used falsehoods to do so, Conway pushed back. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” she told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

She claimed – correctly – that one cannot prove the crowd size number, though that ignores how experts actually can make good estimates about it. Then, she intimated what the Trump administration might do when the press calls him out in ways Trump may not like:

Conway also suggested that Todd’s insistence on asking why Spicer delivered a demonstrably false statement could affect the White House’s treatment of the media. “If we’re going to keep referring to the press secretary in those types of terms I think we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here,” she said.

Chris Wallace at Fox News even got into it with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus:

“I think this is a ridiculous conversation,” Wallace shot back. “There were huge areas, he [Trump] said there were crowds all the way to the Washington Monument.”

“There was,” Priebus insisted.

“There wasn’t,” Wallace shot back. “You know what? Let’s put up the picture again.”

At best, the pushback by the Trump team to discount inauguration crowd size reports and disparage the press comes off as impetuous. It’s not statesmanship. It reflects quite a bit of insecurity. It’s petty. And it’s easy to fact-check and show that they are lying. Even Fox News did that. None of this inspires confidence.

At worst, what Trump is doing is an attempt to convince the public that his propagandist narrative of events is typically true, and that the press is typically lying.

Let’s consider the best case of all this first, that Trump’s pushback against the press this weekend shows the amateur political tactics of his rookie team. If they hadn’t disputed the crowd size story, we probably would not have seen the press go to even greater lengths to follow-up and analyze the crowd size in more depth, and keep reporting it. Personally, I was not even thinking about the crowd size much even after the initial estimates were reported – I just did not really care about it. The story would likely have faded quickly on its own. Since the Trump team now has more ability than anyone in the world to generate headlines, they could have unleashed some other news items and effectively replaced this story with coverage of other things. Instead, they chose to prolong this. Some might say that was intentional and shrewd (see below), since it fires up his base. While that might be a benefit, the cost is some serious negative coverage that is firing up everyone else as well, and during a time when Trump’s approval ratings as he enters office are near all-time lows for incoming presidents (that is another Fox News link for those of you who think anything else would be “fake news,” and it confirms the other major polls). It just does not seem smart. And if they fumble simple things like this, how are they going to handle truly tough political problems, like dealing with other countries on issues such as international trade, terrorism, and military aggression?

But maybe Trump’s tactics are in fact intentional rather than a blunder, an effort to energize his supporters. Trump’s reliance on populism may compel him to demonstrate how much support he appears to have. If this is what is behind the crowd size dust-up with the press, then not only will this continue, it could be the start of something much more disturbing, something I will get to in a follow-up blog post.

How We Get the News

We all have our ways of getting “the news” regularly. Some people start with a particular newspaper each morning and read it over a cup of coffee. Some check their favorite news sites on a mobile device. Some use Twitter, others use Facebook, some watch a morning talk show on TV, some listen to the radio. The sources we tap to feed our news intake strongly influence and/or reflect what we are likely to believe.

Acknowledging bias and protecting against its effects requires each of us to resist the entertainment aspect of how news is presented by much of the media, and instead focus on assessing the facts behind a story. This is a more demanding way to consume information. I would argue, though, that each of us must feel compelled to make the effort.

For what it may be worth to anyone, this is how I get my news. I start at the Google News site each morning. I compare headlines, typically reading about a story from no fewer than two different sources. If a story is particularly popular, I will check it on some known partisan sites and compare it to other sources. When I find discrepancies and if I have time, I will try to fact-check things.

I believe that reading what different media organizations are reporting and following up when there are differences in coverage is the only way to target the truth behind a story. Without sounding high-minded, I feel this is part of acting responsibly as a citizen.

Today, there was a good example of discrepancies in coverage of a popular story, Trump’s tweet yesterday that the U.S. should expand its nuclear capability. It showed up in the second spot on Google News this morning, just under the Berlin terrorist attack headlines. I decided to see how the major news sites were reporting this. All of them had it covered pretty prominently, except for one: Fox News.

The first source I read was Politico, whose article included a quote, and commentary similar to other sites about how Trump’s comments contradict decades of U.S. policy:

“Let it be an arms race… we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” Trump told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” during an off-air conversation on Friday.

The attempt at a clarification came after Trump alarmed some with a vague tweet on Thursday that said, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

The tweet, which threatened to upend longstanding U.S. nonproliferation policy, followed comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called on his country to “strengthen” its nuclear forces.

The Politico piece also mentioned these comments from Trump’s spokesman, Jason Miller:

“President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes,” Miller said in a statement. “He has also emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.”

The only things I can find on the Fox News site about Trump’s nuclear weapons comments are some videos, a short four-paragraph bit featuring Charles Krauthammer’s thoughts on this that were broadcast on Thursday’s Special Report with Bret Baier, and this article, which completely ignores the controversy, and does not cover the story in much detail. It does not even mention Miller’s tortured attempt at clarification. And strangely, the article instead goes on to elaborate on another topic: Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, and how it might be affected by the terrorist attack on the Berlin Christmas market.

Weird.

Even weirder is that while sites such as NBC, ABC, CBS, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, Politico, USA Today, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and even conservative sites like The Drudge Report, WND, and Newsmax, feature links on their home pages today to articles about Trump’s nuclear weapons comments, the Fox News home page does not have a single mention of the word “nuclear,” or any links to the videos or articles it did publish about Trump’s nuclear expansion tweet. (Incidentally, CNN is one of the few that also does not mention this story on its home page now, but that is another site I find problematic, which is a topic for another day.)

Fox does have room for headlines on its home page about some real pertinent stories, though… like an 89 year-old Pennsylvania man getting lost and ending up in Alabama, and how the city of Paris, France, has declared war on rats.

Yes, weird.

The Internet has sparked the creation of so many news sites, and it has stoked the fake news phenomenon (this NPR piece is interesting) in a way that makes it easier than ever to willingly feed on whatever type of stories you find appealing. But the Internet also makes it possible for the first time in history to easily scan a variety of news sources and track down what is true. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to put in the effort when they think there is something that appears exaggerated or false. Most don’t even want to entertain the idea that the sources they choose to read might be inaccurate. But it pays to be skeptical, and it is the way to act responsibly.

If you’re not regularly questioning the sources you’re reading, or taking the time to follow-up on things that seem hyperbolic, outrageous, or emotionally charged, you should make an effort. The world is better off when people are educated rather than misled.

House Judiciary Commission Findings on Encryption (@SeanVitka)

Sean Vitka, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, “What some lawmakers still don’t get about encryption”:

The now-public findings of the Encryption Working Group rightly notes that efforts to mandate companies build workarounds to their otherwise strong encryption are not in the national interest.

The findings are a stark departure from what some in Congress were pushing earlier this year in the wake of the San Bernardino shooter case, in which the FBI tried to force Apple to create a custom version of iOS that would allow the Bureau to bypass the device’s security.

This passage is, I think, the heart of the whole issue (bold emphasis is mine):

But [Joe Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Adam Kinzinger (R) of Illinois] cannot plausibly claim to be focused on the country’s security while failing to oppose backdoors. If they were committed to security in any serious capacity, they would have concluded at least what the Encryption Working Group and what every other expert has been saying for decades: You cannot have an encryption backdoor that isn’t also a vulnerability. Their abstention and voting records reveal they either don’t understand that or they don’t care – and in any event that they definitely do not support a ban on backdoors in the technology that keeps Americans safe.

Other than this Congressional group going on the record ascertaining the fundamental truism about encryption, there is nothing new here. Unfortunately, the debate will continue despite these findings. The incoming Trump administration has been open about its disdain for encryption, with comments not only from Trump himself supporting this, but also from several of his appointments for cabinet and advisor positions.

Once again, for reference

Jeb Bush Returns, With Support of Scott Pruitt for EPA

The man who woulda, coulda, shoulda… In a piece on CNN, Jeb Bush makes the case for Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency. He pitches some of the right-wing red meat anyone of that ilk would want – limit “the intrusion of the federal government in every area of our lives,” rein in “out-of-control bureaucracy,” and more:

Our country has been held back over the past eight years because the appropriate balance between federal and state powers has become totally skewed. Individual liberty and our constitutional order have been threatened. People’s aspirations have been capped by a federal government that overextended its reach, and in no place has this been more apparent than at the EPA. The EPA has become a one-agency job killer, putting working people out of a job and increasing costs for everyone.

There is some truth to the job killing. The coal industry has certainly suffered (by intention, not as a side effect) under the Obama administration, losing over 20,000 jobs through 2015. But the natural gas and oil industries have seen gains, over 30,000 through the end of 2014, though that has declined in the past two years as the prices of these commodities plummeted. But to say that regulations are holding us back, while domestic production of oil and gas has never been higher, vaulting the U.S. to the top of all fossil fuel energy producers in the world, is nonsense.

Let’s recap the past eight years overall, a period in which we’ve risen from the wreckage of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a downturn that began in the last year of Bush’s two terms in office. The U.S. has seen corporate profits rise sharply, to record levels, over 10 million jobs created (though there are other ways to look at this, unrelated to regulatory effects), the unemployment rate decline to under 5% (other ways to look at that as well), and a stock market increase of over 140% as of today, and 120% before Election Day this year.

If these are all the horrible effects of the EPA killing jobs, putting people out of work, and increasing costs for everyone, I’m not sure Bush should be screaming about it.

More to the point about Scott Pruitt:

…Pruitt has acknowledged human impact on the climate and supports a robust discussion about its effects and what the government should and shouldn’t do to address it.

I’d like to see how Pruitt has, “acknowledged human impact on the climate,” by finding some public statement or article with any support of this… and I can find absolutely nothing. Everything I see about Pruitt indicates he does not accept the prevailing research into the causes of climate change and has colluded several times with the fossil fuel industry to file lawsuits and challenge federal regulations.

Bush claims that he, during his term as governor of Florida, balanced the interests of business and the environment well, and therefore understands the proper role of the EPA:

I know Pruitt will be successful because I went through this process firsthand running for governor in Florida. Many Democrats claimed that my views were extreme and that I would ruin our beautiful and unique habitat. What they found was exactly the opposite. Applying conservative principles, we streamlined the bureaucracy, saved the state money and invested in Florida’s environment, including setting out on a historic effort to restore America’s Everglades – something the federal government had failed to do.

A notable example in Bush’s environmental record is his gutting of the law to protect the Everglades. In a huge capitulation to the sugar industry in 2003, Bush pushed an amendment to the landmark 1994 Everglades Forever Act that delayed the requirement to meet pollution goals by 2006 for another twenty years. Bush collaborated with the sugar industry to draft the bill. The sugar industry contributed around $750,000 to the Republican Party of Florida from 1998 through 2002, and later became a major donor to Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC. Now, the Everglades and most of central and south Florida is experiencing the effects of this neglect, partly related to Bush’s legislative “victory” in 2003, as well as to subsequent actions and inaction.

Bush on mirroring his ostensibly sensible approach at the federal level:

This model can be replicated in Washington under an Administrator Scott Pruitt. He will put long overdue limits on the rule makers and roll back those that are choking economic growth. He will ensure that we conserve our natural habitats and resources, while unleashing an energy revolution that will bring millions of jobs to our country.

It seems likely that 1) Scott Pruitt will not make protecting the environment his top priority as EPA director, and 2) that Republicans will have exactly what they desire – an EPA director who is an opponent of the environment and will push for the interests of big business over public safety, and likely be rewarded for it even more than he already has.

Andrew Napolitano Redefines Hacking, and Other Nonsense (@judgenap)

Here is an example of some bullshit mongering on Fox News. Judge Andrew Napolitano, on hacking vs. leaking, tries to frame what intelligence agencies found regarding alleged Russian actions against the Democratic National Committee’s servers as something less nefarious than it actually is:

Leaking is the theft of private data and its revelation to those not entitled or intended to see it. Hacking is remotely accessing an operational system and altering its contents – for example, removing money from a bank account or contact information from an address book or vote totals from a candidate’s tally. When Trump characterized the CIA claim that the Russians hacked the DNC and Clinton campaign emails intending to affect the outcome of the election as ridiculous, this is what he meant: There is no evidence of anyone’s altering the contents of operational systems, but there is evidence – plenty of it – of leaking.

Hacking does not require altering data on a server in order to be defined as “hacking.” This is preposterous. Gaining access to a system on which a user is not permitted is one aspect of hacking. Stealing data is another. Nothing needs to be “altered.”

Napolitano probably got the definition he pushes in his article from the first result in a Google search for “computer hacking definition”:

Computer hacking refers to the practice of modifying or altering computer software and hardware to accomplish a goal that is considered to be outside of the creator’s original objective.

If that’s as far as he went to find a definition of hacking, it’s shoddy journalism. That same source, on the same page, elaborates beyond that misleading description with examples of hacking that do not involve altering anything.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) outlaws what is commonly accepted as hacking, which, again, does not require altering anything. The DOJ has more about it here. There are many other sources as well (see the end of this post).

A leak, by the way, is simply the intentional disclosure of information that is not intended to be shared, and often involves information that was misappropriated or stolen… by hacking.

Napolitano also offers a specious justification for why the alleged Russian actions against the DNC do not constitute anything substantive:

If hackers wanted to affect the outcome of the election, they would have needed to alter the operational systems of those who register voters and count votes, not those who seek votes.

If the hackers had information they believed could have influenced voters, releasing or leaking that information could have certainly affected the outcome. That may in fact have been what happened in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

Napolitano concludes with a baseless and vague allegation about who actually leaked the data obtained in the hacking of the DNC servers, yet he offers no evidence for any of it.

If you are a conservative and the Napolitano piece is an example of a source you routinely tap for information, do everyone a favor and compare stuff like this to more credible sources. For example, want to understand what hacking actually is? There are tons of resources from experts in the computer science and legal fields that will help you more than a, uh, hack like Napolitano, such as the CFAA links above, and here, here, here, here, etc.

Trump's Business Ties Already Jeopardizing American Interests (@kurteichenwald)

Not only has President-elect Trump refused to release his tax returns (the first U.S. President in over 40 years who hasn’t), which should have set off alarm bells for every American citizen, but now the details of the enormous entanglement of business and political conflicts his election presents is proving to require a breathtaking effort.

In Newsweek, “How Donald Trump’s Business Ties Are Already Jeopardizing U.S. Interests,” by Kurt Eichenwald, the author examines several known conflicts that are already of concern. One example:

Just the suspicion that Trump might re-establish formal relations with Taiwan for the financial benefit of his children—or might use it as a bargaining chip for landing the kind of development deals on the mainland that Eric Trump discussed—will now be part of the foreign policy calculations in Beijing, as officials there attempt to deal with the new U.S. president.

If you have not already read the article, do it. It goes into enough depth to see that we are all about to really step in it.

Even some of Trump’s picks for his administration have conflicts of interest. Take Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor, with respect to Turkey’s accusation that Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the U.S., was involved in the recent coup attempt against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (emphasis below is mine):

Erdogan has placed Gülen on country’s list of most-wanted terrorists, but the Obama administration has not acted on the extradition request, and it has told the Turks they would have to produce proof of Gülen’s involvement in the coup attempt before he could be sent to Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Enter Donald Trump. The day of the U.S. election, the news site The Hill published an article by Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn… “The forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like Gülen, who is running a scam,” Flynn wrote. “We should not provide him safe haven… It is imperative that we remember who our real friends are.” (Flynn, who runs a consulting firm hired by a company with links to the Turkish government, seems unaware that radical Islamic groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS, are more likely to decapitate someone like Gülen.)

Flynn’s statement fits too nicely with Trump’s business interests in Turkey, and illustrates that it is likely the Turkish government has significant leverage over Trump even before he takes office.

The examples in the article are just scratching the surface. This has more than the potential for political disaster.

Whither Mac Automation?

Potentially unsettling news regarding macOS automation, reported by MacStories, Six Colors, Daring Fireball, and others, and by the former Product Manager of Automation Technologies himself, Sal Soghoian:

Q. I hear you no longer work for Apple; is that true?

A. Correct. I joined Apple in January of 1997, almost twenty years ago, because of my profound belief that “the power of the computer should reside in the hands of the one using it.” That credo remains my truth to this day. Recently, I was informed that my position as Product Manager of Automation Technologies was eliminated for business reasons. Consequently, I am no longer employed by Apple Inc. But, I still believe my credo to be as true today as ever.

And what that might mean for those of us who rely on macOS automation:

Q. What does the termination of the position of Product Manager of Automation Technologies mean for the future of user automation in macOS?

A. Ask Apple. Seriously, if you have any questions or concerns about the future of user automation, ask Apple. If user automation technologies are important to you, then now is the time for all good men and women to reach out, speak up and ask questions. The macOS user automation technologies include: UNIX CLI (shell, python, ruby, perl), System Services, Apple Events (JavaScript, AppleScript, AppleScriptObj-C, Scripting Bridge), Automator, Apple Configurator (AppleScript, Automator), and Application scripting support in Photos, iWork, Finder, Mail, and other Apple applications.

Sal’s website merits stashing in your handy list of helpful links.

Footnotes in Articles

A quick word about how footnotes are implemented on this site…

In a recent post, The Case For a Demagogue, I used footnotes on this site for the first time, but I was not completely satisfied with the result. By using the HTML <sup> tag surrounding a hyperlink, it’s easy enough to format the footnote reference as a superscript and jump to it:

<ul>
  <li>The 2016 election was the second of the last five in which the 
  winner won while losing the popular vote (Bush #43 in 2000 was the 
  other), and only the fourth in U.S. history 
  <sup><a href="#footnote1">1</a></sup>.
  </li>
</ul>

The problem is getting back to where you were in the text. A quick search revealed a good solution from John Gruber at Daring Fireball. He suggests 1) adding an ID for the footnote reference (I’ve used id="ref-footnote1" in the superscript), and 2) at the end of the footnote text, adding a link back to the footnote reference using its ID, along with a Unicode character often used to represent a carriage return. The way I’ve done it looks like this:

<ul>
  <li>The 2016 election was the second of the last five in which the 
  winner won while losing the popular vote (Bush #43 in 2000 was the 
  other), and only the fourth in U.S. history
  <sup id="ref-footnote1"><a href="#footnote1">1</a></sup>.
  </li>
</ul>

<!-- And the footnote section... -->

<div class="footnotes">
<ol>
  <li id="footnote1">
  From <a href="http://www.pewresearch.org/...">Pew Research</a>: 
  <em>In the 1824 election, which was contested between rival 
  factions of the same party, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the 
  popular and electoral vote, but because he was short of an 
  Electoral College majority the election was thrown to the House of 
  Representatives, which chose runner-up John Quincy Adams.</em> 
  Some sources refer to this as the <em>fifth</em> time the winner 
  did not get a plurality of the popular vote, but for the purpose 
  of this blog post, I consider this a special case since Congress 
  intervened to pick the candidate. <a href="#ref-footnote1" 
  class='footnoteBackLink' title="Jump back to footnote 1 in the 
  text.">&#x21A9;&#xFE0E;</a>
  </li>
</ol>
</div>

I like the way this works, so this will be the convention I follow going forward.