My take on hit-pieces...
How to spot them and avoid reading them
Two years ago, I didn’t know what a hit-piece was. Now I am commonly the focus of them. Having a hit-piece aimed at you is a weird kind of feeling - like violation of being or truth. It is almost impossible to describe the feeling. The feeling of reading something written by someone who has never met you, or talked to you before, that attempts to describe who you are (to a secondary audience) in strange, incorrect and sometimes defamatory ways is bizarre. Quite frankly, to know that someone I never met before, and whose intentions do not appear to be benevolent, is paying such close attention to every word that I write gives me the creeps. It feels like internet stalking to me. No sir. I don’t like it. If someone was stalking me physically, I would call the police. What is the recourse here? This is my primary motivation for writing this piece: to create awareness of this problem and hopefully, to help dismantle it. I hope that I am effective.
This is one definition of a hit-piece that I found online:
A very critical attack on someone or something, especially through media outlets. Often includes information that is biased, misleading, or completely false.1
It is hard for me to believe that anyone would spend time and energy attacking another person that they never spoke to before in the first place, especially at the expense of say, writing a sound counter-argument. I don’t think this disbelief makes me special. I would hope that most people feel the way that I do.
Lying is as old as humans, and although it can be used sometimes in some ‘quasi-benevolent’ ways to prevent hurt feelings, it is genuinely a colossal waste of time because, the truth will always out and although, yes, it can hurt, it is always the fastest way to growth. And growth is good, no?
Criticism is a productive thing in my eyes, but hit-pieces are not criticisms - they seem to me to be masturbatory virtue signalling with punctuation. They classically involve attempts to manipulate public opinion through the elegant appearance of objective reporting, rather than being an objective report. It is not always easy to spot a hit-piece, especially these days when it is becoming increasingly normalized, but I wanted to challenge myself to break this down so that I can objectively and quickly recognize a hit-piece with a goal in mind: to avoid them - including the ones written about me. I want to de-normalize hit-pieces and hopefully have people see them for what they are.
The motivation of a hit-piecester is a mystery to me. I figure that they are either incentivized to create hit-pieces as a way to make a living, or they do it for self-gratification. Perhaps both. Again, in either case, I think due to the increased normalization of this treacherous and creepy ‘profession’, a potential way to de-normalize this trend is to ignore the individual hit-pieces. That’s the only way to make the bullies go away in my experience. And the hit-piecesters are nothing, if not bullies.2
N.B. I realize that writing this piece does bring attention to hit-piece writing, but I want to stress that I am quite actively NOT bringing attention to any hit-piecester in particular. I want to raise awareness and there’s really no other way I could think of to accomplish that.
The following is my attempt to break hit-piecery down and identify markers.
The Title - “Mailman chooses not to deliver mail to anti-vaxxer mother who refuses to vaccinate her poor child”
One needn’t read further than the title in the case of many of these hit-pieces. For example, if a person is ‘name-called’ in a title, then you can pass on reading any further and feel safe in the knowledge that you will not have missed out on a good counter-argument. A title with name-calling will never be used in a scientific piece of writing or in true journalism because, it isn’t necessary to do so. You can also look for well-stationed words. For example, the verb use ‘refuses’ in the context of the mother, as opposed to ‘chooses not to’ in the context of the mailman, demonstrates a clear characterization of each person to persuade the reader that the mailman is the good guy and that the ‘anti-vaxxer’ mother is the bad guy. This is a technique used to persuade or manipulate the reader before the reader even gets to the main body. Also, the use of the word ‘refuses’ makes the mother seem defiant in the face of some proposed unwritten nobility when in fact, she might just be choosing what she thinks is best for her child’s well being.
Adjectives that create opinion or persuasion toward character are also used in hit-pieces. For example, the child in this made-up headline is not necessarily ‘poor’. In fact, I would say this child is lucky to have mother who cares for them enough to protect them from what she believes might be something at best not helpful, and at worst, harmful. The word choice is meant to appeal to the reader’s sense of the victimization of the child by the mother who perhaps chose not to inject her child with COVID-19 products. I have seen that some people think it is fiendish to withhold injections from very young children. In any case, it is the mother’s choice - not the government’s or the mailman’s - what to do for her own child. For now anyway.
Casting character traits on a person who may not embody anything even remotely akin to the trait being cast is very common. Take: ‘anti-vaxxer’. This one’s easy, if you see this word, don’t read on. It has no meaning.3
If you do read on, because of the nature of a hit-piece in general, it will probably have a negative effect on your thought processes or at the very least, stir anger inside you. Anger can be constructive, yes, but only when constructive action is taken from it as a reaction. In my opinion. And I find the only other thing that happens to me when I skim a hit-piece (I had to do so in researching this Substack) is that I feel violated, sad and unmotivated. Not good things to feel if you had planned to be creative that day. One positive note is that it certainly does indicate that a sore spot was hit, eh hit-piecester?
On the subject of the big picture, I think everyone can agree that it doesn’t help anyone to prey on others or to name call. Adults don’t need to resort to this kind of behaviour and it’s far more constructive to speak to someone face-to-face to find out how they really feel or think. That would be more akin to journalism.
Character assassination as opposed to content criticism
Hit-pieces aim to denigrate character - an attempt at character assassination - as opposed to criticism of written content or an argument. This is sometimes called an ad hominen - ‘to the man’ - attack. Ad hominen attacks have purpose - they are often used as diversions, are usually based in faulty premises and are generally irrelevant to the discussion at hand. It is what is known as a logical fallacy to attack a person rather than an argument: X is not (in)correct because person A attacks person B.
Using big words and over-confidence
One thing that strikes me about hit-pieces is how the hit-piecesters always seem to be inexorably correct about all things with no room for doubt or debate. It’s almost like they have a G-d-complex. So look for this type of projected grandeur. Also, something I find quite amusing, is the literal over-use of the word ‘handwaving’ in many hit-pieces. The irony is not lost on me. Here’s what handwaving means in this context:
Handwaving is a pejorative label for attempting to be seen as effective - in word, reasoning, or deed - while actually doing nothing effective or substantial. It is most often applied to debate techniques that involve fallacies, misdirection and the glossing over of details.4
Interesting that the very same three points that make an ad hominem attack fallacious are listed here. I counted the word ‘handwaving’ 3 times in the last hit-piece on me.
General insulting tone
I personally get annoyed when a writer tries to decide for me what to think or imagine or determine while I am reading. Very annoyed. I love to read. And I am very visual. I mostly read textbooks. I like information. The most important part of true journalism is fact presentation. With facts, one can determine what one may think of some pertinent subject matter. For oneself. When facts are replaced with spurious insults, one not only is lacking facts, but is subjected to simple opinion. This might be considered to be OK in the context of tabloids, but not in the context of presentation of scientific data and certainly not in the context of online publications with the words ‘Science’ and ‘Medicine’ in the name. Cripes.
One hit-piece on me was an attempt to convince the audience that I am not qualified to assess epidemiological data. The claim was that since I only have a PhD in Computational Biology, that I have no right to data analysis claims. I mean, what could Computational Biology possibly have to do with data? What surprised me was that they failed to mention that I have a degree in Applied Mathematics. That kind of makes me qualified to speak about epidemiological data. In my degree program, they taught us how to build and use systems of ordinary differential equations using the SIR (Susceptibles (S), Infecteds (I), Recovereds (R)) model as a guide.
Content usually speaks for itself and in the case of data and peer-reviewed literature, this is especially true, in my opinion. Or at least it should be. Peer-reviewed material is just that: material that is reviewed and criticized by educated peers (usually with advanced degrees) and either rejected or accepted under certain conditions. This process is quite elegant in that the back and forth between authors and reviewers results in an end-product that is generally a much better product or manuscript. Even though the process is incredibly annoying and tedious and can take a very long time to complete, most of us agree that our works benefit from it. I hate the peer-review process, but I appreciate its value especially when it works.
Unlike the peer-review process where the process is about yielding a clearer, more concise, more precise manuscript, hit-pieces are more about irrelevant and negative campaigns that yield, well, nothing constructive. That’s for sure.
Instead of insults, maybe it would benefit the audience to hear a debate. Maybe it would allow ideas to advance if discourse was enabled and chosen over hurled defamation. Maybe it’s even time to admit that it’s OK to say “I was wrong”. I will, for one, not judge you.
Pause: I just want to let everyone know that the most important thing that I learned during my immunology degree program was to say the words: “I DON’T KNOW” when, it was the case, that I didn’t know an answer to a question. I imagine that the most annoying thing a professor can watch during a journal club is his student grasping for big-word-straws in an attempt to not look stupid when the cancer immunology guy with all the answers asks the same question about T cells that nobody knows the answer to. Hey Poindexter. You want to not look stupid? Repeat after me: I don’t know. Say it. Sorry. Little brain-plosion there. It really is an important thing to know how to say.
Hit-piecesters are probably here to stay but I hope they aren’t. They will adhere to their lexicon filled with words like ‘anti-vaxxer’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ to express their opinions, regardless of the fact that neither of those words have any meaning at all. (They are just trigger words, like the rest.)
Name-calling is something that some of us did when we very young. It’s juvenile, and it does not lend itself to any kind of growth or solution and I don’t think it belongs in a scientific arena or in a conversation between adults.
I am big fan of constructive criticism and the concept of peer review, but these hit-pieces are something that I am not only not a fan of, but very opposed to. I hope that in writing this piece I was able to reveal some key points to look for to recognize one and subsequently, not engage in reading it. It might hurt your brain. And we could all use some healthy brain waves now.
I highly recommend reading things that make you feel lighter after reading them.
THESE ARE THE DROIDS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR!
Didn’t they ever hear the adage: “If you don’t have something nice to say then don’t say anything at all’?
It is interesting that no one that I know who is called an anti-vaxxer is unvaccinated or against the concept of inoculation. One of my most admired colleagues Geert Vanden Bossche, is in fact, a world-renowned vaccinologist. And Robert Malone is the guy who invented the mRNA tech. Didn’t anyone watch Star Wars? These aren’t the droids you’re looking for? For frig’s sake, they are! They are!