Updates: Town Hall and the Coronavirus

March 24, 2020

Friends,

On March 23, Governor Inslee issued a shelter-in-place order for all individuals, with the exception of essential workforce. That description of essential workforce includes allowances for “artists and musicians providing services through streaming,” provided guidelines around safe assembly are also followed. No more than 10 artists and technicians can be present at these events, and social distancing and enhanced hygienic measures must be employed.

That means Town Hall is able to continue to offer its program of livestreams—many in collaboration with partners like Earshot Jazz, CityClub, and Citizen University—for the foreseeable future. If you squint, maybe it’ll feel like we brought Town Hall over to your house, without the squeezing past people to find your seat.

How long is “foreseeable”? Well THAT’s anyone’s guess—but know that we are committed to playing our part in the heavy worldwide lift to blunt the impact of Covid-19, AND doing what we can to support and sustain Town Hall’s close-in community of artists and presenters, organizations and audiences.

It’s a community that has been tended and nourished by trust and good will for nearly 21 years—and coming off the achievement of our capital work together, that bond feels especially strong right now. We work to keep open lines of communication—always and forever—so please let me know if you have any ideas, questions or concerns.

Wier Harman
Executive Director


March 11, 2020

Hello friends,

In light of Governor Inslee’s declaration this morning restricting public gatherings, Town Hall has suspended in-person attendance at programming throughout our building—including our smaller performance spaces unaffected by his announcement—until March 31. The period of closure may ultimately prove to be longer, but for now please check our website for information on the status of individual programs in April and beyond. We will share more general updates as soon as we have them, and feel free to reach out to info@townhallseattle.org with specific questions.

While our building will not be open to the public, we are presently exploring prospects for digital delivery/livestreams of some currently-announced and soon-to-be-announced programs. More information will follow later this week.

If you have purchased tickets to one or more events during this time and would like a refund, please contact us at patronservices@townhallseattle.org. We also hope you will consider supporting Town Hall during this financially challenging time by not requesting a refund and treating the price of the ticket as a contribution.

We at Town Hall are awed by the sense of collective responsibility and sacrifice emerging across our community—the realization that our only chance to bend the curve of infection is through coordinated action.

This time asks for maximum patience and understanding, even as it asks us to make choices we’d thought impossible even days ago. It will not be easy, but let’s try to find a sense of our own power now, by imagining what we can accomplish together.

Wier Harman
Executive Director

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March 6, 2020

Hello friends,

Town Hall exists to inspire a healthy, sustainable community that supports and cares for one another. Now, as people across our region and around the world grow more concerned about the spread of COVID-19, ideas of “health” and “community” have taken on a more direct meaning.

Our leadership team meets daily to share news and coordinate response regarding the coronavirus, so we are able to adjust our approach based on the most current information available. And so, like other organizations lighting up your inbox today, we want to take a moment to address our approach to the coordinated regional response, and what it means for upcoming programs. Here are some things to know:

–We are taking our advice and direction from Public Health—Seattle & King County, along with other sources. The latest general statement from the agency can be found here: https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/health/news/2020/March/5-slowing-the-impact.aspx

–At this time, we have determined that we will remain open and continue presenting events for the foreseeable future.

However, a look at our calendar will show that a number of programs are being cancelled or postponed at the request of presenters or institutional partners. In these cases, we are working quickly to notify ticket buyers directly about cancellations and to share new dates for postponements. Information about requesting refunds and automatic rescheduling of tickets for postponed events is included in these specific event-by-event communications.

–In light of this, we recommend that you check your email, our website, and/or our social media channels for the latest information about an event you are planning to attend.

–For events which are taking place, know that we are implementing additional disinfection measures across all areas of our building, with special focus on high-traffic areas and objects that are regularly touched (including door knobs, counters/tables, elevator keypads, etc). We are also working to create greater distance between seats, when it is feasible.

–Meanwhile, audience members can take a variety of precautions. First, evaluate whether you should be considered a “person at higher risk,” advised to stay home and away from large groups and gatherings where there will be close contact with others—like Town Hall. People at higher risk include:

    • People 60 and older
    • People with underlying health conditions including heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes
    • People who have weakened immune systems
    • People who are pregnant

For all other attendees:

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Practice excellent personal hygiene habits, including washing your hands with soap and water frequently, coughing into a tissue or your elbow, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Stay away from people who are ill, especially if you are at higher risk for coronavirus.
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces and objects within your home (like doorknobs and light switches). Regular household cleaners are effective.
  • Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat healthy foods, and manage your stress to keep your immunity strong

–Know that many Town Hall programs are made available as audio and video recordings. And while we are presently in the middle of transition in our livestreaming capability in the renovated building, we hope to have this resolved soon, and to encourage it as a viable option for staying in touch with our programs in real time.

Finally, we encourage everyone to read these recommendations from the King County Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control for reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection for ourselves and others. 

Stay healthy, and we look forward to seeing you this spring! 

Wier Harman
Executive Director

Getting Animated with Gustafer Yellowgold

A pancake smackdown, gravy bats, a little yellow man from the sun who loves to go on adventures—Morgan Taylor’s creations have been delighting kids and parents alike since 2005. With colorful animations and lively music that The New York Times has called “A cross between ‘Yellow Submarine’ and Dr. Seuss,” Taylor is a fan favorite on Town Hall’s stages. 

Taylor recently sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss the origins of his beloved character Gustafer Yellowgold, sources of musical inspiration, and ideas for having fun while stuck inside.

AE: Can you tell me a bit about Gustafer? What inspired the character?

MT: What eventually became Gustafer started out as a doodle on a Dayton, Ohio record store marker board in the 90’s. I would draw this yellow, pointy-headed cat-faced creature on the new releases board each week. I put him in absurd situations, like frying up a box of turtles and frogs on the stovetop. He existed mostly on bar napkins until years later when I’d moved to New York City and started a children’s book and music project. I had some fictional short story-songs sung in first person, so when I first drew them out, I used the yellow guy. Coincidentally I already had a song called “I’m From The Sun,” and realized—hey, this is this guy’s story! It was a happy accident really. I put the Sun concept with this character and the whole world sprang forth.

AE: Why choose Minnesota as the setting to introduce an alien to Earth?

MT: Kind of in the same way that Stan Lee put Spider-Man/Peter Parker (and all his fictional heroes) in New York. The fantastic superhero premise has a more grounded, tangible quality when it’s in an actual geographic location. (As opposed to Metropolis or Gotham).

I have a list of Minneapolis bands that inspired me growing up, so I guess that had something to do with it. When I first was conceiving the fictional premise I had Gustafer land on Earth and living in a town called Butterburg. Having him in Minnesota is funnier and gets a good reaction.

AE: Why do kids connect so well with your music? What about parents? 

MT: I’ve always seen it as a “nobody excluded” rather than saying it’s specifically for children. Children are easier to entertain. It’s getting the folks to equally enjoy it that I find the most fun. I think the visual has always played a vital role in how the songs are conveyed. There’s a little magic in the silliness/emotionality combination that seems to work on all ages. 

AE: Which came first for you, the music or the animation? What gave you the idea to combine them?

MT: Always music first. Sometimes a concept will inspire the music, but I always have to have the song before I can start to make the visual. Like, I knew I wanted to write a song called “I Jump On Cake” and the general image the title itself conjures, helped me know what the lyrics should be.

AE: Lots of listeners have said they enjoy the mellow energy of your songs. Why choose to keep the pace slow?

MT: I don’t know. It wasn’t on purpose. Maybe growing up listening to so much soft rock has something to do with it. My live shows are 85% uptempo. And when the songs are mellow, they have the funniest visuals. So they don’t have a sleepy slowness. If your love ballad is sung by an eel or a pterodactyl it almost is better that it’s tender musically.

AE: Which of your songs would you recommend for first time listeners? Do you have any favorites?

MT: It never hurts to start from the beginning. “Wide Wild World” from 2007. That one has a scrappy charm and the songs are each unique to each other. I’m proud of it all. My albums are all short. My first few I barely cracked 30 minutes. 

AE: What are some of your favorite bands? How have they influenced your music?

MT: Beatles are kings of songwriting. Bread are the kings of soft rock style. But, my inner 9-year-old still lives in a room plastered with Kiss posters. After pre-teen years with Van Halen, Journey and Pat Benatar, I grew musically with R.E.M., The Replacements, and especially Minneapolis’ Trip Shakespeare.

In the 90’s it was T. Rex and Guided By Voices (my hometown Dayton, OH buds) and my adult Kiss resurgence. After I moved to New York City I finally found my love of Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Nick Drake and all the solo songwriter legends like that. As far as influence, I just strive to have my own voice like they all did. The Kiss thing; I had a chance meeting with Gene Simmons a couple of years ago and told him it was no coincidence that I ended up combining pop-rock and fantasy characters.

AE: Lots of kids and parents are cooped up at home right now—what would you suggest for ways to keep from getting bored indoors?

MT: Go outside and run around in the fresh air. Read. Get into new music. Find fun podcasts. Listen to audiobooks! Don’t spend all your time looking at screens. And most of all—create!

Morgan Taylor makes regular stops at Town Hall as part of our Saturday Family Concerts series. Check out all the catchy Gustafer Yellowgold songs on his YouTube page or listen to his latest audiobook.

 

A Suggestion While in Self Isolation: Read a Book.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” – Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

Don’t leave your house. Stay home. Stay healthy and keep others healthy. Do you need some suggestions for what to do in your home? Buy a book and read it.

Books are a life blood of Town Hall. We bring in authors and speakers from around the corner to around the world to inform, enlighten, and inspire all of us. The recent pandemic has hampered those efforts. There are deep fears in our literary community about how the coronavirus could damage the longevity of some of our most beloved bookstores.

We, at Town Hall, always delight in working with some of the finest bookstores in our city. They could use all of our help right now. Connect with your favorite local bookstore, order a book, read it, and repeat.

Ada’s Technical Books. They’re closed until March 31 at the earliest. They’ve had to lay off employees. You can order books using their online store.

Elliott Bay Book Company. They’re closed until March 31 at the earliest. You can order books online and they are currently offering free shipping.

Phinney Books. As of now, they’re “open,” but for pickup and delivery only. They’ll be in the store for their usual hours, but no browsing will be allowed in the store, and ideally as little customer traffic as possible.

Third Place Books. They’re three locations are still open with reduced hours but are taking it day by day. They are offering free shipping when you order online.

University Bookstore. All locations, with the exception of the Tacoma store (limited hours), are closed until March 30 at the earliest. They are offering free shipping when you order online.

Do what you can to help ensure the vitality of our region. We’re not one of the most literate cities in America for nothing. We appreciate knowledge, and wisdom, and creativity, and the imagination of us all. Find all that, now more than ever, from one of our local bookstores.

(Literally) Food for Thought: A Discussion about Conscious Eating with Sophie Egan

We face ethical choices every day, like when we stand in the grocery store line. Is this food good for me? Is it good for others? Is it good for the planet? Health, nutrition, and sustainability expert Sophie Egan will be at Town Hall on March 19 with insight from her new book How to Be a Conscious Eater. She’ll be in conversation with environmental author and journalist Tim Egan. Tickets are on sale now.

Sophie Egan recently sat down Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss organic foods, the bulk aisle, and how to carry a couple of cucumbers.

JS: What did you eat as a kid? How ingrained are those habits as we become adults?

SE: Pizza. A lot of pizza. My parents told me I was going to turn into a pizza. I was a picky eater and ate what kids eat: chicken nuggets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. These sorts of foods become our comfort foods as we grow older. Top Ramen for me. They are given a special status for life. They’re called foods of privilege because they were given to us in our formative years when we felt safe, secured, and loved.

It’s actually about exposure. Kids can eat all sorts of things. There’s a program called 100 foods before one. Kids can eat spicier things than you may think—can eat different textures, different flavors, all sorts of things.

JS: When did you start questioning what you were eating from an ethical perspective?

SE: My own habits have been informed by my work. For over five years, I served as the Director of Health and Sustainability Leadership and Editorial Director for the Strategic Initiatives Group at The Culinary Institute of America. I couldn’t help but start thinking about what I was eating in that role.

The food systems were much more opaque before. Now they’re much more transparent. That’s a good thing, but the pace of the issues we have to contend with has accelerated, from the plastics used in food production to slave labor used in our shrimp supply. There is a lot to be cognizant of, and with all these issues making decisions on what we eat is becoming more and more complex. My hope is that my book helps inform those decisions.

JS: Organic food: is it worth it?

SE: There are two good starting points. The dirty dozen are the foods that have the highest pesticide residues. The clean fifteen are the foods with the least.

JS: For those with limited financial means, what do you suggest at the grocery store?

SE: Eating in ways that are good for the planet tends to be good for people. Plant-based food is good for the planet and less expensive. Compare a bag of lentils versus a pork chop, for instance. You want whole grains? Buy a tub of oats. Wild salmon? Buy canned or frozen. Organic produce? Buy frozen. The bulk food section is a great place to get good food at the best price. You can get your granola there without the packaging and without the marketing.

JS: What simple tips can you give someone going to a grocery store wanting to be a conscious eater?

SE: Labels are confusing. Flip the package over. The front of the packaging is nothing but marketing. The information you need is on the back.

Evaluate foods based on what’s in it (is it healthy?), what’s on it (be cognizant of stickers and claims), and the package itself (what will happen to this package when you’re done?).

JS: You don’t need a plastic bag for your cucumber.

SE: Use a reusable grocery bag and reusable produce bags.

JS: What should meat eaters consider?

SE: First—less is more. Less red meat is better. The red meat you buy most often comes from factory farms, which is incredibly harmful to the planet in a wide variety of ways. When you buy your meat, make sure it’s not factory farmed; that it’s more humanely raised; that it’s got grassfed certification. It was raised on a pasture and not in a factory. 

JS: Aside from personal changes in eating, what can people do to help the planet food-wise?

SE: Speak up to local governments to incorporate food solutions when it comes to climate change. Food is often left out of climate change discussions when it’s a key facet of it. Raise your voice to institutional purchasing. Look at your kids’ school, your workplace, your healthcare provider. Are they being ethically conscious about their food choices?

Want to digest more about conscious eating? Join us on March 19 as Sophie Egan takes the stage with Tim Egan. Tickets are $5 and FREE for anyone under the age of 22.

Oud Intentions

What happens when you merge fluid improvisation and subtle noise with traditional Arabic music—then add the talent of a guitar master? The Vancouver-based band Haram aims to find out. Led by award-winning oud virtuoso Gordon Grdina, Haram will be joining us at Town Hall on 3/1 in a Global Rhythms performance alongside legendary guitarist Marc Ribot.

Town Hall’s Alexander Eby sat down with Gordon Grdina for a conversation about ouds, band history, and the spirit of collaboration.

AE: Initially, what got Haram together? What factors steered the band towards including elements of traditional Arabic music?

GG: The band came together in 2008 from two main ideas. First, I wanted a band that could play the traditional Arabic music I was studying but in an unorthodox way. This was the Iraqi folk music I was learning from my teacher Serwan Yamolky and the traditional radio music from Egypt in the 50-60’s by musicians like Oum Khalsoum Farid Al Atrache, Abdel Wahab etc. We’ve since expanded to include Sudanese and Persian music from the same period. 

Secondly, aside from my trio I wasn’t playing regularly with a lot of the incredible musicians in Vancouver and wanted to have a larger ensemble where we could all play together and get a chance to hang out. Some of the musicians were already versed in this music but most weren’t. I knew their incredible sensitivities would bring out new aspects of this ancient music and the repertoire would bring out aspects of their own playing we hadn’t heard before. It ended up being a great idea and we’ve enjoyed many great nights of music since then.

AE: Why are you drawn to the oud as an instrument? What’s it like to try to merge that sound with the rock/jazz/indie/improv sensibilities of the band at large?

GG: I had a very good guitar teacher when I was young who always brought new interesting music to each lesson, and left it with me so that I would get inspired. At 13 I was into a lot of blues and slide guitar, and my teacher Marko Ferenc brought me a Vishwa Mohan Bhatt record with Simon Shaheen. He wanted me to check out Vishaw’s slide playing, but as soon as I heard the Oud for the first time I was blown away. I couldn’t understand how the sound was being made but it grabbed me and I fell in love with it instantly. Simon Shaheen is also one of the greatest Oud players in the world so that didn’t really hurt either. I then got interested in other Oud players like Hamza El Din and Rabih Abou Khalili and later Munir Bachir and others. 

I didn’t get an Oud and start playing the music until I graduated from Jazz School. I got one off of Ebay and instantly started a band called Sangha with my friends Hidayat Honari Neelamjit Dhillon and Hamin Honari. We play original music based in Arabic Persian and Indian concepts. So my understanding of the instrument and practice of it has always been within a blending of tradition. I’ve since studied traditional Arabic music more in-depth, but using the traditional alongside all of the other aspects of my musical understanding is intrinsic to how I make music. I knew that this band would bring out different aspects of the musicians and I could see how their unique voices could add a different dimension to these timeless melodies. 

AE: What interests you most about working with Marc Ribot? What do you think the result will be of blending his musical style with Haram’s?

GG: Everyone in the band and myself are huge fans of Marc. He is one of the icons of the instrument because he transcends the guitar and creates music that immediately touches you. He is soulful, always interesting and intriguing no matter what he does. His sound isn’t based in flawless technique—even though he has that too. It’s based on creating the most direct and honest music in the moment. The most exciting part of this band is that everyone thrives on freely creating in the moment with a sense of abandon.

I think that Marc will meet this abandon and take us all to the next level. I’m expecting excitement, surprise, a fair amount of ripping and the unknown!

Haram and Ribot join forces onstage on 3/1 for an energetic and intuitive concert in a unique exploration of Arabic musical traditions. Get your tickets here!

A Five-Decade Debate as Important as Ever: James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr.

On February 20 at Town Hall, Nick Buccola brings to the the stage a debate about race reverberating 50 years on. 

“I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I was going to use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” James Baldwin grew up poor in Harlem in New York City. His stepfather treated him harshly, so from a young age Baldwin retreated to libraries where he read and started to write. By his 35th birthday, he’d become one of America’s great writers, penning such books as Go Tell It On the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son. He also came to be considered one of America’s great thinkers and human rights advocates, stepping forward to guide critical discussions in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

“Liberals claim they want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” William F. Buckley Jr. was born in 1925, not long after Baldwin, in the same city. Privileged, his mother filled their home with servants and tutors. Buckley attended Yale, became an informant for the FBI, and worked for a time with the CIA. He also founded National Review, a publication that has become a prominent voice on the American right and has played a significant role in the development of conservatism in the United States.

These two men—diametrically opposed intellectuals—met at the University of Cambridge on February 18, 1965. There they debated the question “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” Yes, said Baldwin. “I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing.” No, said Buckley. “The fact that your skin is black is utterly irrelevant to the arguments you raise.” Buckley positioned himself in the debate as a reasonable moderate, one that resisted social transformations Baldwin sought—in particular, desegregation. “The fundamental friend of the Negro people of the United States is the good nature and is the generosity and the good wishes…the fundamental decency,” Buckley said, “of the American people.”  

Fifty-some years later, debates on race relations are still at the fore of our country. Viewpoints on race are still in sharp contrast; in a 2018 Gallup Poll 54% of non-Hispanic whites said black and white relations are good, as opposed to 40% of blacks who said the same. This is marked drop even from 2001 where 70% of blacks said relations were good—more so, at that time, than whites (62%).

On February 20, Linfield College professor of political science Nicholas Buccola joins us to tell the full story of the Baldwin Buckley debates. His book The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William Buckley Jr, and the Debate Over Race in America explores the radically different paths of Baldwin and Buckley and the controversies that followed their fraught conversations. Buccola shows how the decades-long clash between these two men illuminates America’s racial divide today and echoes the necessary work still to be done by liberals and conservatives alike. 

Buccola delves into Baldwin and Buckley’s conversation as a remarkable story of race and the American dream that still resonates today—an unforgettable confrontation that pitted Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s unabashed elitism and implicit commitment to white supremacy.


Join us on February 20 for this important talk. Tickets are on sale now ($5, and FREE for anyone under the age of 22).

The debate:

Can Peer Pressure Save The Planet? A Conversation with Robert Frank

We’ve long known that our choices are heavily influenced by our social environment. Town Hall’s Alexander Eby sat down with Cornell University Professor Robert Frank to explore his new book’s message about how peer pressure can help combat climate change. Frank will be at Town Hall on 1/20. Tickets are only $5 (and free for anyone under the age of 22).

AE: At the core of your research is the idea of “behavioral contagion”—people adopting behaviors modeled by those around them. What are some ways this phenomenon can create problems for us?

RF: Here’s a simple example: We often cite secondhand smoke as the reason for our many taxes and regulations on smoking. But what we don’t acknowledge is that the far greater harm that arises when someone takes up smoking is to make others more likely to smoke. Behavioral contagion can act to our detriment, as with smoking, but also to our benefit, such as when installing solar panels or buying electric cars makes others much more likely to do so.

AE: Critics are skeptical of individual action to combat climate change, such as eating less meat, turning off lights, or buying more energy-efficient appliances. If we really want to solve the problem, they say, we need robust changes in public policy. You say that you once embraced those criticisms, but that your study of behavioral contagion has led you to a more nuanced view. Can you explain?

RF: Critics are right that without strong collective action, our efforts to combat warming will fail. After all, there’s not much tangible benefit for the planet if I recycle but nobody else does. But changing personal behavior has broader effects than many of us realized. Most importantly, it deepens our identities as climate advocates and increases the likelihood that we will prioritize acting on those values—voting for policies to fund green energy and knocking on doors to help elect politicians who will support those policies. 

AE: Do you see a generational component connecting social influence and action based on environmental values?

RF: One clear split is the divide between younger and older voters. The former are far more committed to decisive action on climate change, and are more burdened by the practical consequences of inequality. Older voters are more prosperous, on average, and better positioned to oppose the large tax increases required for any serious effort to combat climate change and inequality.

AE: You say that opposition to more progressive taxation is rooted in a cognitive illusion—that, contrary to what most prosperous voters seem to believe, paying higher taxes wouldn’t require any painful sacrifices from them at all. Can you explain?

RF: No tax proposal on the horizon would threaten prosperous voters’ ability to buy what they need. But since higher taxes leave these people with less money to spend, it’s totally natural for them to worry about whether they could still afford the special extras they want. But because such things are inherently in short supply, the way you get them is to outbid others who also want them. And your ability to do that depends only on your relative bidding power, which is completely unaffected when you and your peers all pay more in taxes. The same penthouse apartments with 360° views end up in exactly the same hands as before. If enough people understood why higher taxes wouldn’t require painful sacrifices, progress in securing funding to face environmental challenges would suddenly become possible.


Join us on 1/20 to hear more from Robert Frank on harnessing the power of social influence to help build support for environmental policies. Tickets are on sale now

Some Information about Misinformation: A Conversation with Samuel Woolley

 

Information literacy is an essential ingredient in a healthy democracy. Samuel Woolley will arrive on Town Hall’s stage on January 9 to discuss his new book The Reality Game. It shows how the breakneck rate of technological change is making information literacy nearly impossible. Woolley argues for a new culture of invention, one built around accountability, and especially transparency.

He recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss bots, bias, and Facebook.

JS: What initially got you interested in misinformation?

SW: I first got interested in digital misinformation during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—offline protests that made serious use of social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to organize and communicate. I noticed, during these protests and participants’ use of digital tools, that the internet wasn’t only getting used for democratic ideals or to aid the people fighting back against authoritarian regimes. In fact, it looked like the regimes and their supporters were also using these same social media platforms in attempts to artificially amplify their own talking points. They were building armies of fake accounts—known as sock puppets and, when automated, political bots—to massively spin things in their favor. A small group of researchers, including my collaborator Philip Howard and I, quickly discovered that these coordinated “computational propaganda” (as we began calling them) campaigns were also being used to attack and defame opposition leaders. Bot armies were simultaneously co-opting the hashtags the activists were using to coordinate and filling them with misinfo, spam and noise—making it so the platforms became less viable tools for communication. After running early analyses on these circumstances, we began to widen our net to focus on whether similar tactics were being used around the globe. The punchline is well known to most people now, but suffice it to say that we found similar tactics being used during almost all online conversations surrounding the elections and other important events we examined—from Australia to Venezuela.

JS: What can we do, John and Jane Q. Public, do to combat it? How can we tell fact from fiction these days?

SW: I think that the public should have hope for several reasons, and also that there are several things we can do to combat misinfo, disinfo, and computational propaganda. First, it’s important to note that the very fact that we are having serious public discussions about the problems associated with misinfo and “fake news” (though I prefer not to use this particular term) is a win for truth. Those who work to spread fiction, for political purposes or otherwise, have a much harder time spreading junk news and other informational garbage when people are savvy to the problem—as some have said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” when it comes to such issues. When my teammates and I first started studying and reporting on these problems in 2013, it was very difficult to get anyone, let alone tech firms, to pay attention. Now, stories about misinformation are everywhere you look. 

Social media firms are also responding, some more effectively than others. 

There are also tools people can use to track social media bot accounts and false narratives. BotOmeter allows people to plug in Twitter accounts handles and, using numerous parameters, learn if a suspicious account is actually automated. BotCheck.me, from RoBhat Labs in Berkeley, has similar uses. The team at RoBhat also have tools like NewsBotAI, which assesses bias in news articles, Surfsafe.me, which assesses author credibility, and FactCheck.me, which works for cluster automated behaviour and improve response times to misinfo attacks. On top of this, teams at the Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin, FirstDraft, Data and Society, the SMaPP Lab at NYU, the Digital Intelligence Lab at IFTF,  the German Marshall Fund, the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council and others are constantly releasing top notch research and deploying exciting new tools to combat misinformation and bolster solid reporting.

JS: Are our social media channels too far gone? Twitter, I know, recently banned political ads. Will that prove at all effective? Why/why not?

SW: The largest social media companies,Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc., face the serious challenge of catching up to a problem that has existed on their platforms for a decade. For the longest time, they were doing little more than deleting the automated accounts they chanced upon. They did not, by their own admission, do nearly enough about the issue of political manipulation on their platforms. They set their sights on growing as fast as possible without thoughts to the informational repercussions that came with this massive scaling. It’s hard for me to see this unfettered growth, alongside the disregard for how they were damaging democratic communication, for anything other than greed and negligence. Finally, though, the executives at the companies are beginning to take responsibility and they are deploying serious resources towards fighting back against misinformation and other forms of manipulation online. 

Really, though, it is the researchers and engineers at these companies who I have the most faith in. They are the ones with the serious know-how, and they’ve shown they want to do something. It was these employees that spoke back against Zuckerberg’s recent move to allow to allow politicians to spread disinformation in Facebook ads in the name of “free speech.” It was them who fought back against (and eventually sunk) predatory payday loan ads and Google’s Project Maven AI drone project with the pentagon. Recent moves by Twitter to ban all political ads, or by Facebook’s near opposite move to allow some forms of political disinformation in ads, feel a little too cut and dry for my taste. These companies are being heavy-handed, likely for the sake of optics and marketing, rather than taking a nuanced approach to the problems. I mean, what exactly constitutes a “political” ad? And how can they allow the most influential among us to spread totally fake narratives? It seems like the companies are trying, and even trying hard, but that they’ve still got a lot of work to do. This makes me wonder, what new social media platforms will arise? How will new channels be built, from day one, in efforts to prevent the flow of misinfo?

JS: Facebook—friend or foe?

SW: Facebook, as I’ve mentioned, has a lot of problems and shoulders a serious share of the blame for the current fractured state of the global information ecosystem. Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and other executives at Facebook have become well known among the tech crowd, from external researchers like me to current and former Facebook employees, for tightly controlling their firm. They would do well to make the process of fixing the problems they’ve helped to create by allowing more democratic input from their own employees and outside experts. They should listen, and listen well, to their research team—which is full of capable, well-trained, social and computer scientists. 

Google also shares a huge share of the blame, but has gotten much less attention, mostly by remaining mum and towing the bogus line that they are “just a search company.” As if the world’s largest search firm hasn’t had a hand in allowing the information we see and consume on their engine to be manipulated and disinformative at several junctures throughout its brief history. They also own YouTube, which researchers like Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis have shown to be rife with white-supremacist, racist, and other seriously problematic content. Google needs to step up in a very big way. Twitter, because of its smaller size, is more a bit player in this drama—though they get a lot of attention because journalists and policy wonks hang out on the platform. In recent months, Twitter has arguably been doing more than its larger rivals to fight back with its political ads ban and other moves. What we chiefly need, though, is more collaboration between the firms. Right now they aren’t taking these issues on as a team. They are still trying to hide their cards from the companies they see as their opponents in the market when really they should be focusing on their opponents in the fight for the truth.

JS: Fake news stories. Twitter bots. Deepfake videos. What’s next on the misinformation front?

SW: I think the next frontiers for misinformation lie in innovations in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and extended reality media. I’m also concerned about the realization of individualized political ad targeting and things like politically motivated geofencing. To date, the vast majority of social media bots we’ve seen have been clunky and brutish, usually just massively amplifying likes or re-posts on behalf of one political idea or person or in opposition to another. 

They’re the cheapest tool that has gotten the job done for those hoping to manipulate public opinion. With social media firms stepping up their responses to misinformation, and with innovations and price drops in AI tools, it’s likely we will begin seeing more convincingly human AI accounts. Whether these accounts will actually be able to convince people, rather than polarize and disgust them in the way their clunky-automated brethren have, remains to be seen. But we should be planning for AI to be deployed for manipulative information operations. Also worth thinking about: will AR and VR tools be used to spread propaganda? If so, how? I list examples in my new book of some ways this is already happening in places like China and beyond. We’ve got to get ahead of such uses of our emergent technology before they grow out of hand.

JS: Is technology moving at too fast a rate for us to keep up with it in regards to misinformation? 

SW: Yes and no. Yes, technology is growing too fast and we could really benefit from a “slow” technology movement like that discussed by Janell Burley Hoffman and others. We need a new direction in tech that focuses on thoughtful, ethically-made tools that are built with human rights in mind rather than growth and profit. But no, too, because I’m a firm believer that politics, scandal, and points of concern move like a pendulum. History shows us we tend to swing from one extreme to another, politically, culturally, economically, socially. We are lucky when we exist in times of relative balance. The way technology has allowed disinformation to scale through automation, and the way that features like anonymity prohibit our ability to catch the “bad-guys”—these things are scary but they aren’t insurmountable. Technology is not a runaway train, we aren’t dealing with HAL or Skynet here, we still have control and there are still many, many, things we can do. We can, for instance, built tools with the best features of humanity in mind. We can design for benevolence, equity and fairness. 

JS: What do you suggest the government (local/state/federal) do to stem this tide?

SW: Generate sensible policy! I say “sensible” because many of the attempts I’ve seen, from Europe to Brazil to the US, lack technological viability and tend towards heavy-handedness. We need governments and policy-makers to consult very closely with public interest technologists and social scientists who study technology so that they create laws and regulations that actually combat rather than complicate the problems at hand. I’m proud of politicians and political entities like Mark Warner and the City of Seattle that have worked to actually combat misinformation online. My other caution is, though, that we need systematic regulation to this problem. Fragmented laws—for instance amalgamations of divergent regulation at the local, state and federal levels—could hurt us in getting things done a lot more than they could help.


Learn more when Samuel Woolley talks misinformation on 1/9. Tickets are on sale now.

Sacred Music of the Renaissance(s)

Despite being born nearly 350 years apart, jazz legend Duke Ellington and Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli have more in common than it might seem.

Both Ellington and Giovanni were pivotal influences on the music of the Renaissances taking place during their lives (Harlem Renaissance and Italian High Renaissance, respectively). As well, in the latter portion of their careers both wrote “sacred” music. 

Much of Gabrieli’s music was written to match the acoustics of the halls for which it was composed. His reverent motets and dazzling sonatas would have echoed from the mosaic-covered vaults of Saint Mark’s Basilica and other Venetian churches in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. 

On December 21 Early Music Seattle presents a holiday concert celebrating Gabrieli’s masterful arrangements. They may not have access to the unique layout of Venice’s San Marco church—with its two choir lofts facing each other, which enabled Gabrielli to create striking spatial effects—but certainly the vaulted ceiling and custom-built acoustic reflector of Town Hall’s Great Hall will amplify the effects of dialogue and echo that permeate Gabrielli’s work. 

In much of Gabrieli’s composition, precision is key. Some of his pieces were even written such that certain instruments could be heard clearly from among the entire orchestra. We’re excited to hear how the state-of-the-art acoustics in the Great Hall complement these pieces of musical canon. 

Just as Gabrieli’s compositions were written for large, carefully arranged ensembles, Ellington’s sacred concerts also relied on collaboration—featuring jazz big band, gospel choir, tap dancers, and more. These concerts were no small undertaking, and have rarely been performed live because of the immense number of musicians required. 

Earshot Jazz has been presenting works from Ellington’s three sacred concerts for 30 years, performing pieces which Duke himself considered to be some of his most important creations. They’ll do so again on December 28. Ellington released three albums in his sacred concert series—the first recorded in 1965 and the last recorded in 1973, just six months before his death. Despite the somewhat somber quality of the third concert, Ellington remained proud of his sacred performances, even referring to them as “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” 

Now, after so many decades (or centuries), these two musicians have one more thing in common—their music will be on Town Hall’s stage this month!

Join Early Music Seattle and Earshot Jazz for concerts featuring compositions from two of the most groundbreaking musical minds of their times. Tickets are on sale now.

The American Xenophobia Paradox: A Conversation with Erika Lee

The United States is known as a nation of immigrants—but it is also a nation of xenophobia. Erika Lee,director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, takes the stage at Town Hall on December 10 with an unblinking look at the irrational fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants which have been defining features of our nation from the colonial era to the Trump era. Tickets are only $5 (free for anyone under the age of 22) and are available now.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley sat down with Lee to briefly discuss political power, racism, and Benjamin Franklin.

JS: What initially got you interested in the topic of xenophobia? 

EL: I have always been fascinated with America’s history of immigration, one that has been marked by both a tradition of welcoming immigrants and a long record of xenophobia – an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants. But the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump’s explicitly xenophobic campaign still took me by surprise. Then he was elected. My students, many of whom were first generation immigrants and refugees, asked me, “How did this happen?” I didn’t have the answers. I knew that I owed it to my students—and to all Americans—to try and figure this out.

JS: For the layperson, what IS xenophobia?

EL: Coming from the Greek words xenos, which translates into “stranger,” and phobos, which means either “fear” or “flight,” xenophobia  literally means fear and hatred of foreigners. But I think that it is important to think about xenophobia beyond this literal translation. It is an ideology: a set of beliefs and ideas based on the premise that foreigners are threats to the nation and its people. It promotes an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants and demonizes foreigners (and, crucially, people considered to be “foreign” or outsiders). And it is a form of racism; it defines certain groups as racial and religious others who are inherently inferior or dangerous—or both—and demonizes them as a group based on these presumptions. When we think about xenophobia in these ways, it becomes clear that it is not only about immigration; it is about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who gets to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship, and who does not.

JS: As a nation of immigrants, why the paradox? Why do we fear the very thing we are supposedly proud of?

EL: This is one of the biggest puzzles that I try to figure out. The U.S. is indeed a “nation of immigrants;” a nation built by immigration. And while we have allowed generations of immigrants to come to the United States, that welcome has not always been uniform across groups; nor has it translated into full equality. There have always some groups that we have been wary of; to the point of demonizing them and labeling them threats to the United States and to the American people. Whom we have welcomed or banned has often been defined by race. European immigrants—while not uniformly embraced into the United States—have certainly faced less systemic xenophobia and discrimination than non-Europeans. When we understand xenophobia as a form of racism, this paradox, I think, is easier to understand.

JS: How does xenophobia work? Why does it endure? Who does it benefit?

EL: Xenophobia is often understood as something that rises and falls depending on what is going on in the United States. When our economy is good, when we are at peace, when we are unified as a country, we are more welcoming. When we are suffering through an economic downturn, are at war, or fractured as a society, we are not welcoming. 

History shows that while economic and other concerns certainly help to make xenophobia thrive, it is not just an inevitable consequence of national anxieties. It is actively promoted by special interests in the pursuit of political power. It has also endured because it has been an indelible part of American racism, white supremacy, and nationalism, and because it has been supported by American capitalism and democracy. And it has succeeded through repetition. Targeting and discriminating against one group of immigrants makes it easier (and normal) to do it against others. Even as Americans have realized that the threats allegedly posed by immigrants were, in hindsight, unjustified, they have allowed xenophobia to become an American tradition.

JS: You note how Benjamin Franklin ridiculed Germans for being “strange.” Did the Founding Fathers have the thought that they could very well be “strange” to the native populations being immigrants themselves? 

EL: In fact, it worked in the opposite way. America’s white settlers did not think of themselves as “foreigners” or “immigrants” in the same way that we use the terms today. They believed they were destined to possess and rule over the lands that became American colonies and the United States. They identified Native Americans and African Americans as America’s first “others;” those who were threats to the colonies and then the United States because they were unfit to American citizenship and racially inferior. 

JS: Chinese exclusions, Japanese internment camps, the Muslim ban – we have a long history of negative treatment towards immigrants. How/why do we target certain populations at certain times? What are the ingredients to cause this hysteria?

EL: Xenophobia thrives best in certain contexts, such as periods of rapid economic and demographic change, war, and cultural conflict. This, in part, helps to explain why and how we have targeted Chinese, Japanese, and Muslim immigrants. The anti-Chinese movement spread during the economic recession during the 1870s; the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the targeting of Muslims in America happened during World War Two and after 9/11. 

But xenophobia is also about racism and political power. Chinese, Japanese, and Muslims have all been portrayed as inherently more foreign, and thus, more dangerous than other immigrant groups. As such they have been targeted for racially discriminatory policies like African Americans and Native Americans. And the campaigns against them—especially the anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim ones—have been actively promoted by politicians as part of larger political agendas and as a way to mobilize voters. 

JS: Are we making progress as a society to eradicate it?   

EL: I’m sorry to say that at the end of writing this book, I am much less hopeful that I was at the start. The Trump era has revealed just how powerful and effective xenophobia remains in the United States. 

JS: What can a citizen do to help in this regard? 

EL: I believe that the first step is to understand how our anti-immigrant attitudes and laws have been steeped in racism then and now. In the past, we used explicitly racist language. Today, code words like “law and order” and “national security” obscure policies that are still racist in their intent and execution. 

Another concrete action that we can all take is to remain informed about immigration issues and how immigration works so that we can be prepared to recognize “fake news,” mistruths, and distorted facts.

We also need to be resolved to the idea that solving xenophobia will not happen overnight. This is a much bigger and deeper problem than just electing a new president. It is deeply rooted in our worldview, our politics, and our laws. 

Lastly, we can all get involved. There has been a tremendous backlash to Trump era immigration policies. If you agree that this administration’s approach to immigration is hurting, rather than helping our country, then let your voice (and your vote) be heard. 

Hear Lee speak more about xenophobia at Town Hall on December 10. Learn more here.

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