Category Archives: Random Blogging

Do Facts Matter Any More?

Fake news. “Alternative” facts. Welcome to the age of Trump.

There is no generally accepted definition of “fake news,” and no bright line separating it from the increasing proliferation of propaganda, but the essential characteristic is that it is not factual. (Fake news is not, as Trump asserts, any news that disparages him.)

Concern about fake news has risen, and Facebook and Google have recently announced steps to combat it. Journalist’s Resource has compiled the still-scanty academic research on the phenomenon.

While much has been written about fake news, scholars have published a limited amount of peer-reviewed research on the topic. Below, Journalist’s Resource has compiled studies that examine fake news and the spread of misinformation more broadly to help journalists better understand the problem and its impacts. Other resources that may be helpful are Poynter Institute’s tips on debunking fake news stories and a well-circulated list of fake, unreliable and questionable news websites compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a communication professor at Merrimack College. The First Draft Partner Network, a global collaboration of newsrooms, social media platforms and fact-checking organizations, was launched in September 2016 to battle fake news.

Starting in January 2017, Stony Brook University, home to the Center for News Literacy, will offer a free online course in news literacy.

The research papers described at the link are worth reading; they confirm what most of us suspect–namely, that misinformation, propaganda and fake news have a pernicious effect. Especially when you consider that most of us engage in confirmation bias–looking for information that validates our preferred versions of reality–it can be difficult or impossible to disabuse people of “facts” they want to believe.

As I tell my students, if you truly believe that aliens landed at Roswell, I can find you several websites confirming that belief. (Some even have pictures of the aliens’ bodies!)

As troubling as this aspect of our current information environment is, what makes it far more troubling is the election of a President with a very tenuous connection to reality, and a staff willing to double down on his consistent lies and misstatements. Never before, to my knowledge, have we had an administration for which facts are at best irrelevant and at worst enemies to be contradicted.

The latest evidence of this Administration’s allergy to facts was a surreal “press conference” on Saturday, in which Sean Spicer berated the media for reporting “falsehoods” about the size of the inauguration crowds. (Trump had asserted that it “looked like a million and a half people.”)

The New York Times reported,

An expert hired by The Times found that Mr. Trump’s crowd on the National Mall was about a third of the size of Mr. Obama’s in 2009….

Speaking later on Saturday in the White House briefing room, Mr. Spicer amplified Mr. Trump’s false claims. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” he said.

There is no evidence to support this claim. Not only was Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd far smaller than Mr. Obama’s in 2009, but he also drew fewer television viewers in the United States (30.6 million) than Mr. Obama did in 2009 (38 million) and Ronald Reagan did in 1981 (42 million), Nielsen reported.

For that matter, most estimates showed that the Women’s March the next day drew three times more people — about 500,000 — than Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, but the White House flatout refused to accept those numbers.

Nor was Spicer the only Administration figure to make bizarre claims. On Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway said the Trump team is offering “alternative facts” to media reports about President Trump’s inauguration. (This led to immense amusement on social media, with people posting things like “I’m thin and rich” and “Best game the Green Bay Packers ever played” #alternative facts.)

In the wake of the election, many of us worried–and continue to worry–that our unstable new President would take America into a misconceived war. We didn’t realize that the first war he would declare would be a war on reality and those pesky and inconvenient facts.

So You Want Your Country Back?

Yesterday, I attended Indianapolis’ March on Washington–one of the “sister” marches held all over the world. As anyone who listens to the news or has seen the photographs already knows, turnout was massive everywhere. At the Statehouse in deep-red Indiana, the crowd was huge; I’m told it was easily the largest demonstration in Indiana in the past twenty years.

There were lots of clever and poignant signs, but the one that summed up America’s situation for me read “Left or Right, We Know He’s Wrong.”

This was not a normal partisan election. It wasn’t a contest between candidates with different policy preferences, a contest between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It was a battle between White Supremacists led by a dangerously unstable demagogue and time-honored, inclusive American values.

Trump has no political philosophy–he  isn’t remotely like the Republicans I served with “back in the day.” But then, most of those who call themselves Republicans today have nothing in common with the Grand Old Party I grew up with.

These rabid ideologues aren’t conservatives; they are a collection of reactionaries, oligarchs and bigots. Whenever I hear one of them piously intoning “I want my country back,” I want to respond “Well, I want the real Republican Party back!”

This New Yorker article made me nostalgic for the party I used to know….

The article was about Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the EPA, but it began by harking back to Bill Ruckelshaus, the first EPA Director. He was from Indianapolis, he was admirable, and he was typical of the GOP of which I was then a part.

In the early nineteen-sixties, a young lawyer named William Ruckelshaus was assigned to Indiana’s state board of health to prosecute cases of toxic dumping. At the time, it was commonplace for manufacturers to discard untreated industrial swill—ammonia, cyanide, pesticides, petroleum waste, slag from steel plants, “pickle liquor” (sulfuric acid)—into the nearest sewer, river, or lake. Sometimes, it formed piles of noxious froth nearly as tall as a house. “Those rivers were cesspools,” Ruckelshaus told me recently. He and his colleague Gerald Hansler, an environmental engineer, began touring the state in a white panel truck. They collected water samples and snapped photographs of fish corpses—bluegills, sunfish, and perch, poisoned by the effluent that gushed from industrial outfalls. Then they wrote up the evidence and brought charges against those responsible. Yet, however diligently they worked, their efforts were often regarded with suspicion by Indiana’s governor, who wanted to keep businesses from moving to states with even laxer environmental standards. “I just saw how powerless the states were to act,” Ruckelshaus recalled.

Ruckelshaus brought this lesson with him to Washington, D.C., in 1970, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to set up and run the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From a modest cluster of rooms on L Street, Ruckelshaus led the agency in its first swift actions. After less than two weeks, he announced that the E.P.A. planned to sue the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit unless they made a serious effort to stop polluting their rivers with sewage. Later, he refused to give automakers an extension on their mandate to install catalytic converters in all new vehicles—a requirement that eventually resulted in large cuts to toxic, smog-forming emissions. And, in 1972, Ruckelshaus’s E.P.A. banned most uses of the pesticide DDT, a move that helped save a national icon, the American bald eagle, from extinction. More than four decades on, the E.P.A.’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act has averted millions of cases of respiratory disease and continues to save hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, according to a series of agency analyses. For the most part, urban rivers are no longer cesspools, and beaches once fouled with sewage are swimmable. Lake Erie is troubled but no longer deemed dead, as it was in the sixties. Lead levels in the coastal waters off Southern California have dropped a hundredfold.

Ruckelshaus, who is now eighty-four, has watched the ascent of Donald Trump with some trepidation. In August, he and William Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H. W. Bush, endorsed Hillary Clinton, lambasting Trump as ignorant of the G.O.P.’s “historic contributions to science-driven environmental policy.”

Science-driven policy. How quaint!

When I consider the Republicans I knew, like Ruckelshaus and Dick Lugar, and those I worked with, like Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut and Indiana Governor Robert Orr, I can’t help thinking that it isn’t just Trump. Appalling as he is, he’s the consequence of a party that has been transformed by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and the pathetic group of bigots and know-nothings who comprise what has been called the “lunatic caucus.”

We aren’t going to get our real country back–the America of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the America that welcomed “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”–unless we get a reasonable, respectable Republican party back.

The sign said it all: it isn’t left versus right. It’s right versus wrong. It’s the America I thought I inhabited versus a bleak and unfamiliar dystopia–and I want my America back.

 

 

The Little (Activism) Engine that Could?

Thursday morning, I blogged about a new tool for activism being developed by one of my sons, a web designer and developer living in Manhattan. I explained the underlying premise of the  site and how it will work; I also noted that its utility is dependent upon the currency and accuracy of the information it will convey–information that will have to be provided by organizations working to protect Americans’ rights (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, etc.) and by volunteers in each state.

After describing various features of the site–including ease of use–I made the following pitch for volunteers.

My son plans to roll out a beta test in Indiana later this month. BUT—and this is a big BUT—the usefulness of the tool he has worked so hard to create absolutely depends upon the information it will contain. In Indiana, that means that people who are knowledgeable about bills filed in the General Assembly need to insure that information is included and current; people aware of upcoming “direct actions” need to convey that information via the site.

This tool is free to use. The site will never have advertising, it is not an “organization” that will fundraise. It will never share private information about its users. It is meant to be an added “outreach” mechanism for organizations like Hoosier Environmental Council, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU—among many others. We hope–and expect–that those organizations will share information through the Activism Engine as well as their own websites.

As I mentioned, the plan is to “beta test” the site in Indiana, to see how it works, solicit feedback, and to fix any bugs before taking it national.

If this “one-stop-shop” for activism is to work, however, it needs dedicated volunteers who will post the necessary information. If you are interested in being one of those volunteers, or at least finding out what is involved, Please go to this url and fill out the form: https://ae.stephensuess.com/

At last count, 157 people have signed up, and the volunteers keep coming. To say that this level of response–after one post to one small blog– is gratifying would be an understatement. It’s particularly significant, in my opinion, because it suggests that people aren’t just expressing negative opinions of Trump et al and then going back to their normal routines; it’s a sign that many of them really are willing to put time and effort into resisting the GOP’s incredibly destructive agenda.

My son is currently sorting the responses by what volunteers have signed up for, and everyone who has filled out one of the forms will receive an email from him shortly.

I just want to thank everyone who signed up, forwarded the information, or otherwise participated in the effort to prepare for the launch. Once the beta test “rolls out,” which should be very soon, I’ll let everyone know.

We can do this.

 

 

Rubber, Meet Road

In the wake of the election, a number of commenters to this blog—here and on Facebook—have asked a simple question: what can we do? How can Americans of good will mount an effective resistance to Trump and the Congressional Republicans?

It’s a question that has been asked on a number of other venues as well.

There is a big difference between sharing concern and disapproval on social media with friends who are likely to agree with us, and actually engaging in productive activism. A decision to make a genuine difference, deciding how to do that and actually following through is where the rubber meets the road, as the old saying goes. So it will be interesting to see who steps up to engage with the forthcoming “Activism Engine.”

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my sons lives in Manhattan, where he is a free-lance web designer and developer. Since the election, he has spent countless hours creating a website geared to people who want to make a difference, but have no idea how to start—people who are not “web savvy,” who have not necessarily been politically involved before.

The site is very simple to use: you can choose your state (or entire country, and eventually, your city), choose what most concerns you from a relatively short list of issues (the environment, reproductive rights, elections and voting rights, etc.), and see what legislation is pending in Congress and/or your state and what direct actions—marches, petitions, protests– are being planned by organizations focused on those issues. There is a place to keep track of your involvement, and even share it on social media if you are so inclined.

Perhaps the most impressive—and useful—part of the site allows you to effortlessly contact your elected officials. Put in your address, and a list comes up of everyone who represents you from your City-County Councilor to the President, with contact information including telephone numbers. No need to go elsewhere to find out who your congressman or state legislator is, no need to look up address or phone number.

My son plans to roll out a beta test in Indiana later this month. BUT—and this is a big BUT—the usefulness of the tool he has worked so hard to create absolutely depends upon the information it will contain. In Indiana, that means that people who are knowledgeable about bills filed in the General Assembly need to insure that information is included and current; people aware of upcoming “direct actions” need to convey that information via the site.

This tool is free to use. The site will never have advertising, it is not an “organization” that will fundraise. It will never share private information about its users. It is meant to be an added “outreach” mechanism for organizations like Hoosier Environmental Council, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU—among many others. We hope–and expect–that those organizations will share information through the Activism Engine as well as their own websites.

As I mentioned, the plan is to “beta test” the site in Indiana, to see how it works, solicit feedback, and to fix any bugs before taking it national.

If this “one-stop-shop” for activism is to work, however, it needs dedicated volunteers who will post the necessary information. If you are interested in being one of those volunteers, or at least finding out what is involved, Please go to this url and fill out the form: https://ae.stephensuess.com/

Be the rubber that meets the road.

Less Trust, More Conspiracy

“People say” was the way our embarrassing President-elect introduced bizarre conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or others who had offended him in some fashion.

No evidence. No factual basis. In most cases, no plausibility.

The question rational people asked–and still ask–is “why would anyone believe that?” Because clearly, many did. A recent report from Journalists’ Resource offered an answer, or at least the beginning of one.

President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, goes one common conspiracy theory. Another: George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. Conspiracy theories can spread quickly in this era of social media, especially as people sort themselves into information silos, only sharing information with the like-minded. During the 2016 presidential election one candidate frequently leveled charges against his opponent with little evidence, sometimes framing them with the noncommittal phrase “people say.” He won.

A 2009 paper defines conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.” Other researchers add that conspiracies often allege the illegal usurpation of political or economic power.

The authors of a 2014 paper found “over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”

A number of studies have found that politically active people–especially conservatives with deeply ideological commitments–embrace conspiracy theories that confirm their beliefs and paint their political opponents in a bad light. A new study builds on that previous research, and adds an important element: the absence of trust.

“Conspiracy Endorsements as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” published in the American Journal of Political Science in October, investigated the hypothesis that people endorse conspiracy theories to serve “both ideological and psychological needs.” They anticipated that people who endorse such theories would be “both highly knowledgeable about politics and lacking in trust.”

Miller and her team explain that people with deeper political knowledge are better equipped to make connections between abstract political ideas, that they are more likely to seek to protect their positions, and thus more likely to endorse “ideologically congruent” conspiracy theories – that is, theories that are consistent with their political positions.

People with a reasonable amount of trust in social and governmental institutions were far less motivated to accept such theories. The study’s authors asked approximately 2,200 Americans who self-identified as either liberal or conservative to consider eight conspiracies. Four were designed to appeal to conservatives and four to appeal to liberals (for example, respectively, Obama was not born in the U.S. and the Bush Administration knew about 9/11 before it happened). The authors also created a “trust index” based on how much the individuals trusted the federal government, law enforcement, media and the public to do what is right.

Here were some of their conclusions:

  • Conservatives are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.
  • Individuals with a high level of trust in institutions are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracy theories. There is no evidence of a similar correlation among liberals.
  • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics who also have little trust in institutions are most associated with endorsement of ideologically consistent conspiracy theories: “Highly knowledgeable conservatives are more likely to engage in ideologically motivated endorsement, especially if they believe that the world is an untrustworthy place.”
  • For liberals, greater knowledge about politics and greater trust in institutions both appear to decrease their tendency to endorse conspiracy theories.

As I have previously noted, labels like “conservative” and “liberal” can be inexact. (I’ve been called both–and my own definition of both terms is probably different from that of many other people.) Furthermore, there is a demonstrable difference between principled conservatism and the sort of Tea Party and “alt-right light” individuals who call themselves conservatives these days.

That said, the study is illuminating.