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The Impact of Toxic Influencers on Communities · Intense Minimalism

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There’s a common character that can be often spotted in many online communities. It’s the “toxic influencer” (sometimes referred as “intellectual bully”). A toxic influencer is a person that covers a useful role in a community, but at the same time creates a toxic environment around them that can become bullying in some instances — yet they never over-step the line of proper abuse, so they can’t be easily managed.

These are the three traits of a toxic influencer:

  • Needed — they have a level of knowledge on a specific topic, or they have time, or both, and as such they found a spot in the community that isn’t covered well, and they took it for themselves, in practice providing a needed service to the community. 
  • Toxic — they create a very tense environment around them, usually with a mix of passive aggressive takes, constant poking on people’s nerves, acting condescendingly, and general low-key abuse. Note however that this doesn’t mean they are antisocial: they are likely to be very good at talking, possibly even very charismatic.
  • Lawful — This is a key difference of toxic influencers: they operate within the rules very well, both implicit and explicit ones. They use their intelligence and awareness, so they are very careful in never over-stepping the community rules in terms of abuse and mistreatment. Even more, in some cases they weaponize the existing policies for their own gain.

Note that this can happen in any community, but has a stronger tendency to happen when the community isn’t purely for socialization but there’s a shared goal with technical skills involved — like an open-source community, or a do-it-yourself community, a sports association, and so on. 

“Bullies are generally defined as people who intimidate or control others to achieve their aims. They may collaborate when their goals are being met, but they lack fairness or honesty. Workplace bullies generally manipulate or terrorise those with status below or equivalent to themselves. They may also intimidate superiors, such as threatening to resign at a critical point”.

Dr M Lamia (2017) ”The psychology of a workplace bully”.

A Story

I used to be a community manager, in a couple of large online communities around 2005, and a few stories come from these days. In one of them specifically I was also an “admin”, so while I was directly moderating some forums, I was also part of a smaller group with higher access. For instance, I co-authored the rules for the forum that have been active for over 10 years until the forum shut down, with minor changes.

I take a story from these days because it’s deep in the past, as I’ve no interest in calling out specific people in more recent years. 

One of the forums was the Tech Area, where people discussed computers in a broader sense, but more often asked advice on something not working or on something they wanted to do. One day, a guy started to show up. He went through all the threads on the main list, and replied to each one of them. The technical part of the reply was good, it’s just that the general message was “You’re an idiot, and because you’re so stupid, I’m coming here to save you, here’s how you solve the issue”. But to be clear, never directly insulting, never that explicit, never that obvious.

At first the moderators started to ask him in a few threads to tone it down, we were a friendly community, and we wanted for people to feel supported.

The reply was always “but I’m helping them, see?”.

And he did, sure. Over time, some people started also liking him: “but he’s always here, he replies fast, and provides solutions, he’s a good person”, “I had a problem and he solved it in just a few hours!”. Moderators had a hard time keeping up as they were all volunteers, while the guy was seemingly very frequently checking the forum and replying. When asked about “but you don’t have a job”, he replied that he had his own company, was rich, and owned a Ferrari.

The problem was that technically there was no explicit violation of our guidelines – this was before I co-authored the new ones, which made it easier for moderators to take action. Unsurprisingly these rules were partially based on the experience we had with this guy.

So over time what happened is that the Tech Area stopped being a small community, because he was always there first, nobody could help. Also there was no conversation possible, because his replies were always framed as absolutes — even when he was obviously and demonstrably wrong.  It was a one-man show. A lot of people stopped participating, coming in just asking when they had problems, and moving to other forums.

The few people remaining split into two groups: the people that were accepting him as superior, and thus he rewarded with compliments and protection, and the people that didn’t, who started becoming antagonistic and trying to one-up him by spotting mistakes and replying before he could. 

The community was basically gone, until one day he disappeared. The community started getting better, some people started being more skilled at replying and helping… but a few months later he was back again. This cycle repeated a few times.

In the end, it was a combination of him making a mistake, and him walking away: he got a temporary ban (a few months), and he never came back. We got lucky, but this happened only after years, and the forum was basically dead after that. Some people started mirroring the behaviour of the toxic influencer that left. It took months for that forum to recover.

How they come to power

There’s a common dynamic when these people arrive. Usually it starts with a gap in community needs. This could take many forms, and doesn’t have to be a big need. Sometimes it can even be a need that wasn’t even perceived, but when the person arrives, they do good, and the community responds well.

That person is helpful!

Unfortunately this person also starts doing — either consciously or unconsciously — things that create a very tense environment. This can happen in multiple ways, here’s a few behaviours:

  1. Polarization —this is probably the most dangerous. This person will make sure that people, especially new people, are inoculated with the idea that there’s a good group (the one led by them) and a bad group (everyone else). They might emphasise every normal human misunderstanding to reinforce this idea, until people just naturally side with them. This basically uses normal social group behaviour to their advantage, by creating a fictional divide and reinforcing it.
  2. Passive Aggression — everything they don’t like, gets a negative note from them, sometimes even taking things happening in one discussion, and mocking them in another, in a way that only the two people involved will likely notice, and everyone else… will just see one annoyed person snapping back seemingly for no reason. Unsurprisingly, this reinforces very well the us-vs-them behaviour.
  3. Swarming — they reply every (or most) of the discussions. They are there, they feel everywhere, so people start being on alert about getting an answer from them. If they are smart, most of the replies will be positive, constructive, and harmless — which again unconsciously contributes in creating a positive halo around the person.
  4. Repetition — issues are constantly brought up, even if they seemed settled in the past. Sometimes they might even take some time to prepare the ground, get people to agree with them first telling their part of the story, before raising it again, so they have reinforcements ready. There’s no closed case for them, until they get it their way.
  5. Judgemental — they know, and they make their knowledge visible and loud. Even more they make people feel the emotional weight of being judged by them as inadequate or not knowledgeable enough. This ends up making people either avoid learning and going away, delegate everything on the topic to the person (an outcome that reinforces their role in gap-filler), or challenge their take directly (thus creating an even stronger polarization).

These behaviours — and more — might be mixed differently, but the outcome is always the same: they acquire status, sometimes even formally, they get a group of people protecting them, and everyone else is just a bad person against the good they are doing — remember, they are filling a community gap!

New people coming in either accept their behaviour, and become part of their group accepting their abuse, or walk away. You can imagine how harmful is this to the community as a whole, because the only people that join at this point are… people like them, or close to that kind of behaviour. No diversity, no growth, nothing is possible. There’s no community anymore.

You can see another example of this in Linus Torvalds, even if in that case it was his own project, not one he joined. It’s important to capture the essence of these behaviours, not the exact sequence of events, so we aren’t skewed by how this plays out, as it can be different from community to community.

How to spot these people?

It’s hard, there’s not a shortcut here. It’s hard specifically because they represent a duality between doing good, and doing bad. And in abstract, that’s what all humans do. So why is this a type, and how can we identify it?

First of all, it changes a lot if you’re part of their group, or outside. And if outside, if you’re close to them, or not.

If you’re part of their group, your perception is going to be biased in their favor, and it’s likely you’re one of the people defending them. It’s hard if you’re in this position, because of course you like them, and there’s a reason why you’re part of the group. The most important thing to notice here is that yes, there’s a group you’re part of, and yes, there’s a dynamic at play that is hurting others. Also notice if you keep protecting someone, regardless of the context.

If you’re not part of their group, and you are not close to them, then it’s likely impossible to even see that something is going on. The behaviour is very subtle, and a lot of the passive-aggressiveness happens across many discussions. For example what you’ll likely see is suddenly someone snapping for a “normal” comment… that however is not normal, as it was referencing a previous, separate discussion. The only way to see, is to get close. Check their interactions, see how it happens. 

If you’re not part of their group, and you are close to them — either because you need their skills, you’re working together, or else —  then you are likely feeling the impact directly. Unfortunately, what you notice is that when you try to speak up, this person is immediately protective, and protected. And nobody else seems to be saying anything, so you end up being gaslighted into thinking it’s you.

The problem is… none of these signs are universal and a sure way to tell what’s going on. There are many other scenarios where these descriptions can fit. We can try to use the breakdown of traits and behaviours into some questions — keep in mind however that answering positively to a question doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem. It’s the combination that makes the type, so it needs to fit the whole profile, not just that single question.

Trait questions:

  • Needed — is there a gap in the community that only one person is filling? is anyone considered irreplaceable? are they taking the spotlight for themselves?
  • Toxic — are people pushed away from the community? does this person leave a bad feeling after interacting with them? do multiple people feel the same? do they act very defensively to any criticism and blame others? do they show their skills but never to educate, just to argue?
  • Lawful — is this person manipulating the rules to their own personal advantage? do they use written and unwritten rules for their personal gain instead of community gain? are they more interested in the rules than in the goal people are trying to reach?

Behaviour questions:

  1. Polarization — do they keep reinforcing the idea that there’s a “us” and a “them”, usually through generalizations? do they try to bring new people on their side? do they keep blaming others?
  2. Passive Aggression — are their insults subtle? are they stubborn? are they irritable or very defensive when criticized? do they complain about not being appreciated? do they keep bringing up personal attacks, in a way that is not actionable?
  3. Swarming — are they present in many different spaces at the same time?
  4. Repetition — do they keep bringing up old issues and asking to resolve them again and again? are they able to accept a decision taken by others if they disagree?
  5. Judgemental — do people fear the judgement of this person and are relieved when they approve?

Take these as a sort of scoring system. If all the questions score high, then, you might have a case of a toxic influencer — it’s still not certain, but at that point you’d want to look into it more closely.

Someone that is just a negative person, but doesn’t have a damaging effect on  the community, isn’t a toxic influencer per-se. Also, we all make mistakes, we all try to create our own group, we all have some form of passive aggressiveness, we all have that old issue we bring up. It’s the combination of factors, and the effect of the community, that is different.

The Psychology of the Toxic Influencer

First of all, this is not a diagnosis. I’m not going to attempt to state something about their inner thoughts, as that’s work for a therapist, which they should definitely go and see.

However, when dealing with abusers and bullies, I think there’s value in recognizing that it’s a consequence of some form of their own suffering. I’m asking to empathize with them, as it’s useful. I know this is not easy if you’re part of a community that has this character, so it’s ok to just do it briefly. It’s also not meant to be an attenuating factor. Why they do something doesn’t take away anything from the harm caused.

One of the possible dynamics at play is that they are using knowledge gain to ease their own suffering. In their past, they found out that every time they gained knowledge and expressed it, they were able to get positive feelings from others. This became a virtuous circle based on their own smarts combined with their own fears. This unfortunately also made them avoid working on their suffering itself, so they just have their coping mechanisms, and that’s why it’s dangerous to question their knowledge: it’s like asking them to face their suffering.

You can also see how knowledge and social recognition then also fuel their ability to socialize, because that’s where they get validation. So that’s another self-reinforcing loop, where they acquire more and more social skills.

“People wrongly assume bullies have low self-esteem, but their behaviour is actually a response to internalised shame. Although some people who live with shame have low self-esteem, those who behave like bullies tend to have high self-esteem and hubristic pride. They attack others to take away their shame – which allows them to remain unaware of their feelings”.

Dr M Lamia (2017) ”The psychology of a workplace bully”.

This means it’s hard to make them “understand” or “see” their own behaviour, because they are driven from a deeper kind of fear. This is also why they will likely perceive any attempt to stop them as aggression: when an abuser is given a boundary, to them it will feel like abuse.

What to do?

Taking action is very hard: they will always have a group of people defending them. These are selected people that over time joined because they tolerated their behaviour, and now they enjoy their protection. They can’t see the toxicity, they just see the benefits to the community.

How can anyone try to attack someone that does so much good to the community?

It’s also likely that everyone else will agree with you, and they would appreciate it if that person wasn’t there anymore. However, it’s likely that they aren’t going to speak up. They have better things to do, especially after they have tried already to do something in the past.

This is often the cycle:

  1. A new person comes in.
  2. They notice the abuse.
  3. They try to do something.
  4. The clique protects the abuser.
  5. Everyone else is too tired to support, so they stay silent.
  6. The new person, unsupported, retreats.

By retreating they either now abandon the community, like all the others that didn’t even try to fix it and just left, or they stay and build their own defense mechanisms to tolerate the behaviour: “I’ll just do my part, and try to ignore that person as much as I can”. It’s unlikely they will join the clique because they recognized the toxicity in the first place.

The options here are limited, exactly due to the protective dynamic outlined above:

  1. They make a mistake clearly against the rule.
  2. They decide to walk out on their own.
  3. Someone else comes in challenging them, and is able to take their spot.
  4. The community leads make a very unpopular decision to remove the person even if no explicit rule was broken.

Some people might think: isn’t there also an option to make them understand, and “fix” them? Yes, in theory, there is. Yet, it’s likely to take someone with the skills of a therapist, the will of the person involved (it’s impossible to change someone that doesn’t want to change unless cornered, and even there, might change in the wrong direction), and multiple years of work.

“Asking nicely has its limits, eventually you must take action.”

J. Atwood (2015) “Handling an Intellectual Bully”.

If your community has a toxic influencer, there’s no easy way out. Review the above, integrate with some readings on the psychology of bullyism and community management, and prepare a long term strategy.

If your community doesn’t have a toxic influencer, note that some research identified how prevention is usually the most effective strategy. You really want to be prepared to manage them before the community is impacted.

One important note: this can’t be fixed with just a policy.

They will use it to their own advantage.

Good luck.

Further readings

Thanks to Tammie Lister for providing a sounding board while writing this, and some insightful ways to say difficult concepts.  Thanks to Andrea Middleton and Anne McCarthy for a review and smoothing some sharp edges.

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angelchrys
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seigephoenix: psychotictea: thewellofastarael: Fun fact: the...

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seigephoenix:

psychotictea:

thewellofastarael:

Fun fact: the reason wearing seatbelts became common in the US was because kids were trained to in school, and would constantly bug their parents to wear their own seatbelts. In my mom’s words, everyone was shamed by little children into behaving safely.

This is how I got my mom to quit smoking,,, by annoying the everloving shit oughta her at age 7

My 8 year old looked at a man in the airport (when I had to fly her to her Dad’s for the summer) and the sass came out in 3 ways.

First: She would constantly ask why someone wasn’t wearing a mask, loudly. “It’s not like it’s hard.”

Second: Standing in line to get food she noticed ome guy behind us wasn’t adhering to the 6 feet guidelines. She turned to him. “Six feet please.” He was so surprised he stepped back automatically. But then glared at me as I shrugged. “Rules are rules dude. She did say please.”

Third: A woman sneezed on the other side of the terminal waiting area. She was joined by a couple other kids for this one. “If you cough or sneeze, use your elbow please.” Honestly half of us were trembling to keep in the laughter and the others were just shocked to hear kids speak up like that.

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swcope
1 day ago
This is how my sister and I got our mom to stop littering.
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R.I.P. Trini Lopez, “If I Had a Hammer” Singer and Guitar Designer Dies at 83

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Trini Lopez, the Dallas-born musician known for early ’60s hits like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Lemon Tree”, who later designed two popular guitar models for Gibson and appeared in The Dirty Dozen, has died at the age of 83. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lopez passed away Tuesday (August…

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R.I.P. Trini Lopez, “If I Had a Hammer” Singer and Guitar Designer Dies at 83
Alex Young



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Fox News Host Tucker Carlson Mispronounces Kamala Harris' Name, Scoffs When Corrected: 'So What?'

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It didn’t take long for Tucker Carlson to go after Kamala Harris: The Fox News host repeatedly mispronounced the Democratic VP candidate’s name on Tuesday’s show, and later shrugged it off when a guest tried to point out his mistake. Carlson referred to Harris — who was chosen to be Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s […]



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Warren Buffett: America's Folksiest Predator

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Hi,

Welcome to BIG, a newsletter about the politics of monopoly and finance. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here. Or just read on…

One of the more important figures in American capitalism over the last forty years is Warren Buffett, the legendary investor who is now the fourth richest man in the world. Buffett is an icon, the ‘Oracle of Omaha,’ who lives a simple lifestyle based on folksy wisdom, eating Dairy Queen ice cream, and drinking Coca Cola. Or so goes the myth. In this issue, I’m going to do an interview with an author who presents a very different side of Buffett, the side that is key to his wealth and power. Specifically, the monopolist side, and how Buffett’s way of investing has been a multiplier force for dominant corporations.

Also in this issue:

  • The timing of the Google antitrust case and changing Senate politics

  • The growing business rebellion against monopoly power

  • A merger of 7-Eleven

  • The Intuit-Credit Karma merger

  • Another weird monopoly

Some housekeeping. First, I was on a lovely Irish podcast called The Stand with Eamon Dunphy. Second, a lot of readers of the last BIG issue, which was on Chinese apps, seemed interested in exactly how Facebook’s market power led to the rise of TikTok. National security expert Lucas Kunce wrote that up for the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center ProMarket magazine.

And now…

America’s Folksiest Predator

Journalists have always served an important function in addressing corporate power. The great anti-monopolists of the 1880s were journalists such as Henry Demarest Lloyd, muckrakers whose words gave voice to a movement seeking to reign in corporate power.

Journalist Dave Dayen is an heir to this tradition. He’s the executive editor of one of the most important political magazines today, the American Prospect. He did groundbreaking (and lonely) journalism on foreclosures and financial corruption throughout the Obama years, and his 2016 article on antitrust in The New Republic laid the groundwork for Elizabeth Warren’s key speeches on the issue that rocketed the importance of monopoly into the political stratosphere.

For today’s post, I’m going to do an interview with Dayen on his new book, Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power. Monopolized is a mix between a business book and a travelogue, a set of stories about people living under the control of various powerful corporate entities, from Wall Street to Amazon to prison and the military. There’s also a roadmap for how to fight back, and Dayen profiles Israeli anti-monopolists who successfully did just that. One interesting aspect of Monopolized is that Warren Buffett is a silent presence throughout, profiting quietly in the background from virtually every monopoly Dayen describes. We don’t often hear of Buffett as a great monopolist, but that’s what he actually is. So in this interview, that’s who we focused on.

If you’re interested in a sweeping but detailed take on the modern landscape of corporate power, you should buy a copy of Dayen’s Monopolized; it’s enormously well-researched, and you will know more about corporate power after you are done. I learned a lot, even though studying monopoly is what I do.


Thanks for writing this excellent book. I want to get into Warren Buffett, but first I want to ask a basic question that I hear a lot in policymaking circles, which is that the problem of monopoly is just too complex for voters to really get. You wrote this book by traveling around the country and reporting stories of people dealing with corporate power. Did you get the sense that the public at large understands the problem of monopoly and concentrated finance?

People know that something is terribly wrong. They might not be able to articulate it using technocratic antitrust jargon, like no one mentioned the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index in terms of market share, but they understand the system is rigged. When I talked to a woman who is renting a home and she got an alert for her own home being put on the market without her knowledge because the house is owned by a private equity giant, well, she knows that something is terribly wrong. She’s a big Trump supporter, but now hates the private equity firm Blackstone, which she also knows is full of Trump donors.

Another woman I interviewed, she lives in Tennessee and classifies herself as a libertarian, she knows something is wrong. Her husband has diabetes, and she’s tracking his blood sugar on this wearable device. If she gets an alert on her phone, when he has low blood sugar, she goes and gives him a little piece of chocolate. Turns out there was a gap in her wifi conductivity, because she lives out in this rural area and they are literally forbidden from getting broadband by a law that the telecom industry got passed. She tells me she saw a 15-minute gap in her tracking, and found her husband slumped over his chair because that's the moment in which he crashed. She calls herself a libertarian, but she knows something is terribly wrong with the governing structures of the economy and the power of these corporations that have insinuated themselves to American life.

People might not be able to call it monopoly power, but they know something isn’t working.

Your book is about monopolies. One character who keeps popping up in the book, surprisingly, is Warren Buffett. He’s a genial kindly old man in the media. But who is Warren Buffett in this book?

Buffett is the avatar of monopoly. This is a guy whose investments philosophy is literally that of a monopolist. I mean, he invented this sort of term, the economic “moat,” that if you build a moat around your business, then it's going to be successful. I mean, this is the language of building monopoly power. He not only looks for monopolies in the businesses he invests in, but he takes it to heart in the business that he's created, Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway owns something like 70 or 80 or 90 companies and they have large market shares in all sorts of areas of the economy.

It's kind of like an old school conglomerate from the sixties and seventies, but there are certain facets of it, where he's clearly trying to corner a market. Buffett's initial businesses that he actually outright purchased were newspapers. It started with the Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York. And he used anti-competitive practices to put the competition, his rival newspaper, out of business. That was literally his MO there.

What are some of the surprising businesses or sectors he's involved in? We don’t typically hear Warren Buffett and opioids in the same sentence. And yet…

Teva Pharmaceuticals is one of the companies in which Buffett has had a huge investment. And Teva is one of the manufacturers of generic opioid based products. Buffett knows well that there's no better way to put a moat around your business than to sell an addictive product.

We don't usually typically think of Buffett as sort of a drug dealer, but he certainly sells a lot of opioids or makes money from those who do sell it by owning the stock. It just seems to me like his real job is to put a happy genial face on abusive power. You know, everybody in the investment world loves Buffett. But the Sherman Act is a criminal statute because traditionally monopolization was understood as a crime.

I think that's true, and it has a very direct impact. Warren Buffett's a huge investor in DaVita, which is one of two dialysis companies. These companies give really terrible service and capitalize on the fact that Medicare covers kidney disease in America. And DaVita just rips off the government, as I show in my book.

Buffett is also an owner of the largest trailer park manufacturers. And he has presided over the complete rip-off of very vulnerable people who can't afford anything more than a mobile home.

What is Verisign and how is Warren Buffett involved?

Verisign is one of the most amazing companies that nobody knows about. It sells really one product. When someone registers a .COM or .NET website, Verisign gets a cut. It is one of the most profitable companies in the world by profit margin. The reason is that it costs essentially nothing for Verisign to register one more .COM website. Once it has the database set up to make sure that when you type in xyz.com that you actually go to that website, once you add one more to that, it doesn't really cost them any money. The profit margins are as high as 65%, which is insane. Like you see that nowhere else in business.

Is Verisign a government-granted monopoly?

Yes. The right to manage .COM and .NET domains is a government contract. It’s done through a a quasi-government entity, technically a nonprofit, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Most recently in 2018, ICANN gave Verisign the right to increase the prices for that registry. Now these are small prices for each website, but every time you increase them, it's essentially billions and billions of dollars in free money that Verisign is allowed to grab. And Warren Buffett has nearly 13 million shares of this stock.

This is not a well-known stock, not a high trading stock necessarily, but he recognized many years ago that they have a moat around their business. They're the only ones that get to assign .COM names and take 10 bucks a year for each domain name, which is a small amount in of itself. But if you take it from 150 million people, all of a sudden, you're talking about real money. He’s one of our nation's greatest monopoly spotters.

It's also a bet on corruption, right? Because if ICANN were running domain name registration responsibly, they would be reducing the price, but they're increasing the price or allowing Verisign to increase the price.

Right. If there was responsible management within this market another company who could do it for little as a dollar a domain would get that contract. But these contracts are automatically renewed as long as certain performance metrics are met. And you know Verisign acts like a monopolist because a few years ago ICANN put another domain name suffix, .WEB, on the market. It was seen as a competitive product to .COM. Well Verisign essentially rigged the auction for .WEB; they created a fake company called NewCo that bid this enormous amount of money, $135 million, for .WEB, and won the auction. And two days later, they put out this press release saying, well, Verisign was actually NewCo. To this day, not a single .WEB web address has been created. They bought the company to take it off the market.

That's a classic killer acquisition, obviously anti-competitive. What else does Buffett own?

I tried very hard in the book to get Buffett into every single chapter. Buffett was for many years one of the major investors in John Deere. John Deere not only holds a monopoly over tractors and farm equipment, but exploits its power by forcing farmers to return to its manufacturers in order to repair its products, essentially blocking people from repairing their own equipment. John Deere even says that the only thing people buy when they buy a John Deere tractor is a license to run the machine.

And John Deere has become one of the largest farm credit companies in the United States, and so they are now lending out money to farmers to buy John Deere equipment.

How does Warren Buffett intersect with craft beer?

Warren Buffett has this long-standing partnership with 3G, which is a Brazilian private equity firm, and he has gone in and helped them make a lot of their deals. This includes the merger between Burger King and Tim Horton's and between Kraft and Heinz, now two of the largest food corporations in the world. He also helped 3G have its subsidiary, a Belgian beer company named InBev, buy Anheuser Busch. AB InBev now has hundreds of brands of beer, well beyond just Busch and Budweiser, including craft brewing. You look at the beer market and superficially, you would think, there’s a lot of choice there, but in reality, AB InBev has bought up a lot of these craft brewing companies. And they obscure it on the label, so it’s hard to see that AB InBev owns this brand. Buffett helped engineer this merger, so there’s now a behemoth that has a large chunk of the beer market, not just in the United States, but around the world.

What else?

Buffett has become a large investor in Amazon. Even though he had sort of a longstanding history of staying out of anything involved with computers and tech, because he used to say, “I had to understand the product and business.” Well, he understood the monopoly that Amazon was putting together, so he purchased a large share of their stock.

One of the more interesting investments that Warren Buffett has had for a long time is Moody's. Moody’s is one of the big three credit rating agencies, which rates bonds for investors. There was a very interesting moment after the 2008 financial crisis where the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) came to interview Warren Buffett, not just about the credit rating business, but all the financial services area. He has over $100 billion in shares in financial services arena. Banking is something that has served him well over the years. The FCIC asks Buffett, “what do you know about the credit rating business?” And he says, “I know nothing about the credit rating business. The only reason I bought it is because there are only three credit rating agencies and they serve the whole country, and they have pricing power.”

And if you have a business like that, I believe what Buffett said is ‘even your idiot cousin could run it.’ And so Buffett is not just someone who stumbled into monopolies because he likes blue chip stocks. He seeks them out, and he is very dedicated to this whole concept of finding companies who are bereft of competition and profiting off of them. And this is a strategy where he has led the market rather than being led by it.

For instance, Morningstar now puts out an economic moat index. You know, they're following Buffett’s lead, there's literally a bundle of stocks you can buy that are monopolies that you can take out as an index fund.

One thing about Buffett that strikes me as interesting is that in the FCIC interview where they're asking him about Moody's, he said he didn't even know the name of the CEO. There's an absentee ownership aspect to Buffett’s ownership where he just owns, but has no responsibility for anything that happens, what used to be called absentee ownership.

That’s the correct definition in this case, not just his investments, but with the actual companies that he owns, he claims to have very little to do with them. That’s by design, a sort of a plausible deniability that Buffett allows himself. His philosophy remains the same, build a moat around your business. So he doesn't have to be actively managing that in order to be responsible for it because it's his management philosophy that is governing.

It's tempting to sort of let Buffett off, and say that this is just the way things are, and he’s a smart guy to capitalize on it. But he pioneered this tactic. He's been at it for many, many decades. And by cheerleading for monopoly, he helps cement it in place and he creates sort of a strategy among aspiring business tycoons that this is the way that you succeed in America. And Buffett has a lot of power and influence.

In a fair economy or well-run economy or political system, could Warren Buffett exist?

No, I mean, right from the outset, he couldn't exist because the way in which he created his business is through creating an insurance conglomerate and using the payments for these large investments. And now he just makes money because he has money. When Warren Buffett goes into a stock, the stock moves and, following Buffett is a legit investment strategy that other people have. Buffett is largely untaxed on a lot of this stuff because he doesn't sell very often.

Is Berkshire Hathaway a good roadmap for regulators and antitrust enforcers?

Warren Buffett would be the best informant for an antitrust authority that you could find, because he's already looked into the economy and found the companies that have the most inordinate market power. And so all you’d need to do is subpoena him and say, all right, tell me about this company that you bought and why you bought it. And you would say, well, they have this incredible pricing power. Well, there you go.

Thanks, Dave. The book is Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power


A September Antitrust Case Against Google? According to CTFN, the Department of Justice is likely to file an antitrust case against Google in September, and the states will launch one in October. The DOJ will focus on the non-search parts of Google, which is basically the plumbing for display advertising on the web, and the states are going to do that part, but also include search. It’s interesting that the states and DOJ are not going together, and suggests there’s little trust between Bill Barr and state officials.

Meanwhile, a whole host of Senators on the right and left sent a letter to the DOJ Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission about Google’s anti-competitive conduct in sending search traffic to YouTube. What’s interesting about this letter is that usually stalwart Google-defender Utah Senator Mike Lee signed on, and Lee is the Chair of the Antitrust Subcommittee in the Senate. Lee has been one of the single biggest obstacles to doing something useful on antitrust, but it looks like he might be shifting. Aside from this letter, he just announced a hearing in September on online advertising.

Other signers of the letter are Thom Tillis (R-NC), Mike Lee (R-UT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ted Cruz. It’s a weird crew, but as Gilad Edelman noted in Wired, Republicans are getting serious about antitrust on big tech.

The Business Rebellion Against Monopoly Picks Up Steam: There’s increasing ferment among business people against monopolization, now that antitrust is becoming a mainstream topic of conversation. For instance, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney criticized Apple’s app store as “the most uneven in the history of technology products,” which is something you would not have heard a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Proton Mail came out against Apple’s app store policies with this piece, saying “we have long hesitated to speak out for fear that these tech giants may abuse their market dominance to destroy all who dare to stand up against them.” Proton pointed out that Apple forced them to change their description of their anti-censorship product so as not to offend authoritarian governments, and to make that change everywhere, including in democracies.

Increasing anger about monopolization is not just focused at Apple or big tech. Architects are beginning to speak out against the Architect, Engineering, and Construction software monopolist Autodesk, with an open letter complaining of price increases of 70% and declining software quality and usability. I suspect more and more people are realizing that the law should be on their side, and not on the side of the one with market power.

Intuit-Credit Karma: I wrote up some of the problems with the Intuit-Credit Karma deal back in February. It turns out the Department of Justice Antitrust Division is investigating the merger. Generally speaking antitrust these days hinges on whether a CEO can make Trump’s antitrust chief Makan Delrahim feel that he or she is important enough to matter. If so, the merger goes through. If not, then the staff can have their way. So I'll guess we’ll see how important Intuit is to Delrahim.

7-Eleven Merger: One of the worst franchise relationships in the country between franchisors and franchisees is 7-Eleven, which I touched on a few weeks ago when writing about food delivery apps. And now 7-Eleven is buying 3,900 Speedway convenience stores, to enlarge its footprint. The press release is littered with language of increasing market power, from “clear industry leader in a fragmented industry” to “well-positioned to maximize efficiencies and optimize relationships with vendors and business partners.” If you do business with 7-Eleven or Speedway, look out.

Headset Monopoly: As it turns out, there seems to be a monopolist in the headset market for call centers and telemarketers. Plantronics, the market leader in this space, has had antitrust suits since 2012, when it apparently had 75% of the U.S. market. In 2014, Plantronics was caught destroying records it was requested to hold for the possible case, and it just settled an antitrust case last month with a rival. The claim is that Plantronics forced distributors to only sell its products, and it cuts off distributors who stock the equipment of rivals, which is known as an exclusive dealing arrangement. I’m told Plantronics continues to monopolize. And why wouldn’t it? Who’s going to stop them?

Thanks for reading. Send me tips, stories I’ve missed, or comment by clicking on the title of this newsletter. And if you liked this issue of BIG, you can sign up here for more issues of BIG, a newsletter on how to restore fair commerce, innovation and democracy. If you really liked it, read my book, Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.

cheers,

Matt Stoller



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William Shatner says ‘straight white cis man’ is a ‘slur’ that ‘harasses and debases’ him

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Across a volley of tweets stretching several days, William Shatner sparred with LGBT+ Twitter users over the term cisgender, often shortened to cis.

The word “cis” can trudge up grievances among some people perhaps not used to being labelled in this way. The phrase, which dates to academic circles in the 1990s, refers to when the gender someone was assigned at birth and their sense of identity match-up, in other words, not trans.

“If you’ve never heard or come across the term cis before, it’s OK to be a bit confused at first,” Kirrin Medcalf, head of trans inclusion at Stonewall, previously told PinkNews.

“Nobody is expecting someone to know everything right away, but it’s important to take the time to learn about why using language like cis helps make a more inclusive, accepting world for everyone.”

It’s a three-letter-long word that appeared to have stung Shatner, who, across seven days, has engaged in online dust-ups with users over the use of the term. He claimed that he is being “harassed” and “debased” by the word, especially when used in the phrase: “Straight white cis man”.

The scuffle unfolded on the same week that a top trans rights group announced that the number of trans people in the US murdered in 2020 just surpassed last year’s total. It’s only been seven months.

William Shatner: ‘The only time CIS is used when referring to me [is to harass or debase].’

The 89-year-old, known best across his decadeslong career for playing Captain James T Kirk in the Star Trek franchise, tweeted Monday (August 3) about a Twitter user trying to prompt Shatner to block them.

A supporter tweeted: “You’re an old white man so you MUST be a hateful bigot, is the new bigotry the kids are all about these days.”

“You forgot CIS as in, old white CIS man,” Shatner dryly said, “need to stay current.”

Shatner later responded to a user who, according to screenshots, said he was “happily surprised that you didn’t use ‘cis’ in a condescending manner”.

The actor replied: “Some need labels and categories to separate people in order to harass or debase them. The only time CIS is used when referring to me is in that way. ”

Star Trek legend says cis people are oppressed for being cis. 

What followed was a quick cascade of tweets from the director that have roiled many LGBT+ Twitter users.

Shatner offered blunt rebukes to various users who were seeking to inform Shatner that “cis people aren’t oppressed for being cis”, and that the term is simply a descriptor, not a slur.

As Shatner’s Twitter mentions mushroomed, the flashpoint appeared to arrive Saturday (August 8), when the producer, refusing to dial-in his comments, provided examples of what, he said, were examples of cis people being oppressed specifically for being cis.

But Shatner’s attempted firewall against criticism did little to tamper it. Many users flagged that his examples of violence and discrimination have little to do with being cis, but rather touched off the complexity of oppression.

People are categorised in various ways – from their class to sexual orientation to race. What these terms allow is a way to explain the challenges specific to people categorised in that way may face, and how these terms sometimes overlap with others.

These terms represent people’s real, lived experiences, there for people to better understand themselves and let others know who they are.

“Ultimately, [cis is] just another adjective, but for trans and non-binary people, it can be the difference between being welcomed in society, and being ostracised,” Emma Underwood, trans programme officer with the LGBT Foundation, said.

The use of cis is not a slur, users stressed, and is simply a descriptor of a certain kind of identity that, in this case, carries privileges that those who are not cis – such as trans folk – do not have. Both cis and trans people can experience hardship in life, but trans people experience systemic prejudice specifically because they are not cis.

As the odyssey continued, Shatner doubled down on his take that the word cis is a slur. Amid accusations of transphobia, he denied that his views are anti-trans, emphasising his issue was the word cis itself, and said: “I never had any problem with people being trans.”

On Sunday (August 9) he reiterated that “straight white cis man” is a slur and is, he claimed, “used most commonly in harassment”.

 

The post William Shatner says ‘straight white cis man’ is a ‘slur’ that ‘harasses and debases’ him appeared first on PinkNews - Gay news, reviews and comment from the world's most read lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans news service.

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