[Tyler Cowen] Seven lessons about blackmail

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Feb 20, 2019 - 17:03
  • Updated : Feb 20, 2019 - 17:03

Every now and then, a few apparently random news events come together and influence how you see the world. My most recent lesson is that blackmail and blackmail risk are a lot more common than I had thought.

The first relevant news event is the allegation by Jeff Bezos that the National Enquirer has been blackmailing him with the threat to release photos of his private parts (there is much more detail to this story). Several other people have since alleged that the Enquirer has engaged in additional unscrupulous extortion tactics. This could be part of a broader pattern, involving other media and intelligence services.

Even if you don’t believe all these allegations, it matters if people think they might be true. A world full of perceived but phantom blackmail attempts has many of the same characteristics as a world full of actual blackmail -- namely, that people are afraid of being caught.

The second piece of news concerns revelations that various Virginia state officials have engaged in objectionable acts earlier in their careers. Gov. Ralph Northam, for instance, has a 1984 medical school yearbook page with a photo of two men, one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume.

To be sure, there is no evidence of blackmail in this case. But this photo surfaced shortly after Northam supported a highly controversial bill on late-term abortion. Whether this is coincidence or not, the next time a politician with an awkward past is thinking of supporting a highly controversial policy, he might reconsider or try to prevent the issue from rising to the agenda in the first place. Again, the mere perception of blackmail risk can have an impact.

So what are some lessons from the apparent greater prevalence of blackmail risk?

First: Be good! Minimize the chance that someone can blackmail you.

Second, the main villains in these privacy losses are not the big internet companies. While it is murky exactly how the Bezos photos leaked, it seems to have involved old-fashioned spying and the interception of text messages (and possibly a renegade brother). Silicon Valley didn’t sell his data. As for Northam, the yearbook is from the pre-digital era, dug up in a school library. This information was not on the internet, though of course it did play a role in spreading it.

Third, billionaires can be pretty useful. As Bezos asked in his open letter on Medium: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” In this case, both the billionaire and the medium of communication are the good guys.

Fourth, fears of a new era of blackmail based on Photoshopped images and so-called deep fakes (phony but convincing video) may be overblown, or at least premature. In the cases of both Bezos and Northam, the authenticity of the source material (text messages and photos) is not really being questioned, and both stories are receiving intense scrutiny. Rather, the debate is over the provenance and significance of the information.

Fifth, the Republicans were correct two decades ago when they argued that President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was a grave case of misconduct. In addition to its effects on her life, it opened up the commander-in-chief to potential blackmail, and it’s now clear most people underestimated that risk.

Sixth, the current president was ahead of the game when he tried to render himself non-blackmailable through his own boastful outrageousness. (His modus operandi seems to be to make it impossible to accuse him of saying something more shocking than he has already said himself.) The verdict is still out, however, on how well this strategy will work as a defense against blackmail.

Finally, most people now have a new and better sense of why blackmail should be illegal. Economists have long faced an embarrassing question: If it helps deter undesirable actions, what exactly is wrong with blackmail? The traditional answer has long been that laws against blackmail prevent would-be blackmailers from investing too much time and energy into digging up evidence of wrongdoing. Yet those hardly seem like major costs, no more than police patrols would be.

Perhaps a better objection to blackmail is that it distracts everyone’s attention, degrades public discourse and, in the largest sense, works against the possibility of second chances in life. Of course there should be debate about what constitutes good and bad conduct. But the focus should be on what people did or did not do, and not so much about the drama of how the information was obtained.

Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.