Tag Archives: social media

Journalism Declines And Scandals Rise

I know I harp a lot on the importance of accurate, credible journalism–especially at the local level, but it is really, really important.

Believe it or not, the ongoing scandals in Virginia, which have embroiled the top three state officeholders, are illustrations of what happens when local coverage goes missing.

As Amanda Marcotte observed in Salon, 

The Virginia scandal is a reflection of a larger trend where politics will be driven more and more by revelations, gotcha moments and resulting scandals. The decline in robust, in-depth journalism, particularly on the local level — coupled with the rise of social media and well-funded partisan opposition research — is creating an atmosphere where political scandals, legitimate or not, will increasingly dominate politics and media.

“You have this degradation of resources in local journalism, which has been going on for a while now,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is currently offering a fellowshipfor local investigative journalism. “You also have this counterpart, which is that it’s easier than before for opposition researchers on all sides to dig up dirt of this sort.”

Benton explained that the decline in local journalism allows politicians in the early stages of their careers, when they are likely to be running for school board or city council,  to escape the scrutiny they would previously have gotten from the relevant local media.

Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, added that this trend has coincided with another, “the rise of social media and the ways that political candidates are able to communicate with their constituencies directly” and present a version of themselves that’s more to their own liking.

The result is that politicians simply don’t get the vetting they might once have received as they climb the career ladder from smaller offices to statewide and even national offices. Red flags that might have been noticed before a politician reached a position of significant power get overlooked, because local papers simply don’t have the resources to catch them.

The decline in local coverage has coincided with the rise of partisan outlets– not just national networks like Fox and Sinclair, but local talk radio and blogs less concerned with accuracy than with scoring points.  Add to that the gift of the internet– the wealth of materials that vigorous opposition research can now unearth– and you have a recipe for ongoing scandals appearing at extremely “inconvenient” times in politicians’ careers.

In the “old model,” Benton said, people  who wanted to share damning information like sexual assault allegations or past episodes of racist conduct would “go to a reporter and hand him or her the documents or the evidence,” and that reporter would “determine whether the information that’s being handed to them is correct or not.”

 “Now, increasingly you can just post it online and skip that step in the process,” he added. So questions about whether the information is true and legitimately newsworthy don’t get answered in advance.

It appears that the Virginia accusations are all true, although the stories were “broken” by a sleazy partisan web site. But in other cases, innocent parties and organizations sustained real (and sometimes permanent) damage before manufactured allegations could be debunked. Remember when Breitbart accused the nonprofit ACORN of being involved in sex trafficking? Its story was entirely false, but it led to the group’s collapse. A doctored video was used to accuse Planned Parenthood of selling “baby parts” from aborted fetuses and was gleefully spread far and wide. It was later shown to be part of the ongoing, deceptive effort to convince lawmakers to stop funding Planned Parenthood, but pro-life groups continue to cite it as “evidence” of the organization’s evil doings.

In the absence of adequate, reliable reporting, conspiracy theories and partisan invention will fill the void. And citizens won’t know what they can and can’t believe.

The problem is national, but far more prevalent at the local level.

Brave New World

As the reporting about Cambridge Analytica’s sophisticated propaganda campaign suggests, we humans are far more “manipulatable” than we like to think–and Huxley was wrong to predict that it would require drugs (remember Soma?) to pacify or mislead us.

The linked article by two Harvard University researchers suggests that the discovery of this political operation raises the stakes of our ongoing concerns about the impact of digital technology on democracy.

There was already a debate raging about how targeted digital ads and messages from campaigns, partisan propagandists and even Russian agents were sowing outrage and division in the U.S. electorate. Now it appears that Cambridge Analytica took it one step farther, using highly sensitive personal data taken from Facebook users without their knowledge to manipulate them into supporting Donald Trump. This scandal raises major questions about how this could have happened, how it can be stopped and whether the connection between data-driven ads and democracy is fundamentally toxic.

It also raises concerns about the new ability of political operatives, armed with the results of political psychology research, to identify and prey on voters’ vulnerabilities. Extensive personal data amassed through social media platforms–especially Facebook– can be used  to manipulate voters and distort democratic debate. Cambridge Analytica exploited that ability on behalf of the Trump campaign.

We’ve come a long, long way from the days when we collectively received our news from a mass media. Instead, we now have what a scholar once predicted and dubbed “the daily me,” information (and disinformation) that feeds a personalized reality–Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble”–that isn’t necessarily shared with others.

On the internet, you don’t know much about the political ads you’re shown. You often don’t know who is creating them, since the disclaimers are so small, if they exist at all. You also don’t really know who else is seeing them. Sure, you can share a political ad — thus fulfilling the advertiser’s hopes — and then at least some other people you know will have witnessed the same ad. But you don’t really know if your neighbor has seen it, let alone someone else across the state or the country. In addition, digital advertising companies distribute ads based on how likely you are to interact with them. This most often means that they send you ads they think you are likeliest to engage with. They don’t determine what the nature of that engaging content might be — but they know (just as all advertisers do) that content works well if it makes you very emotional. An ad like that doesn’t make you contemplative or curious, it makes you elated, excited, sad or angry. It could make you so angry, in fact, that you’ll share it and make others angry — which in turn gives the ad free publicity, effectively making the advertiser’s purchase cheaper per viewer, since they pay for the initial outreach and not the shares.

What this can lead to is communities and, eventually, a nation infuriated by things others don’t know about. The information that makes us angriest becomes the information least likely to be questioned. We wind up stewing over things that, by design, few others can correct, engage with or learn from. A Jeffersonian public square where lots of viewpoints go to mingle, debate and compromise, this is not.

As the authors note, none of this means that Facebook and Twitter intentionally undermined Hillary Clinton. It’s much worse, because the technology that powers social media uses the personal data to which they become privy to divide the American population and then feed us “highly personalized messages designed to push our particular buttons so well that we share them and they go viral, thus keeping people on the site longer.”

Social media rewards provocation — again, without repercussion, since we usually only share content with our friends in a way that is largely invisible to the broader public. Morality and integrity count little in online advertising.

The real question here isn’t which campaign got the advantage. The real question is whether this micro-targeted free-for-all should be allowed in the political sphere at all in the way it is currently designed —with very little transparency about who is pulling these strings and how they are doing it.

We truly do inhabit a new world. I don’t know how brave it is.

Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.

 

Can Digital Democracy Ever Work?

Is there really something fundamentally different between digital/social media and the traditional press? The Brookings Institution thinks so, positing that the recent Brexit vote in England arguably represents “the first major casualty of the ascent of digital democracy over representative democracy.”

Many technology optimists have assumed that globalization would lead to the democratization of information and decision-making, and also greater cosmopolitanism. Citizens would be better informed, less likely to be silenced, and able to communicate their views more effectively to their leaders. They would also have greater empathy and understanding of other peoples the more they lived next to them, visited their countries, read their news, communicated, and did business with them. Or so the thinking went.

It is hard to dispute the authors’ contention that this world of enhanced democratic decision-making has failed to materialize.

Instead, digital democracy — the ability to receive information in almost real time through mass media and to make one’s voice heard through social media — has contributed to polarization, gridlock, dissatisfaction and misinformation.

In our “post-fact world,” thanks to social media and the internet, a lie (or–as the article notes– “better yet a half-lie) if told enough times becomes truth.”

A third result of digital democracy…is the political echo chamber. Social media, rather than creating connections with people who possess differing views and ideologies, tends to reinforce prejudices. As the psychologist Nicholas DiFonzo has noted, “Americans across the political spectrum tend to trust the news media (and ‘facts’ provided by the media) less than their own social group.” This makes it easier for views and rumours to circulate and intensify within like-minded groups. Similar digital gerrymandering was evident in the EU Referendum in Britain and the polarization is palpable in the Indian online political space.

Finally, instant information has increased the theatricality of politics. With public statements and positions by governments, political parties and individual leaders now broadcast to constituents in real time, compromise, a necessary basis of good governance, has become more difficult. When portrayed as a betrayal of core beliefs, compromise often amounts to political suicide. Political grandstanding also contributes to legislative gridlock, with elected representatives often resorting to walkoutssit-ins, or insults — all manufactured for maximum viral effect — instead of trying to reach solutions behind closed doors. Even as ease of travel allows legislators to spend more time in their constituencies, making them more sensitized to their constituents’ concerns, less gets done at the national or supranational level. It is a trend that, once again, applies equally to the United StatesEurope, and India.

The unintended consequences of digital democracy — misinformation and discontent, polarization and gridlock — mean that the boundary between politician and troll is blurring. The tone of democratic politics increasingly reflects that of anonymous online discourse: nasty, brutish, and short. And successful politicians are increasingly those who are able to take advantage of the resulting sentiments. Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise.

“Exploiting divisions, appealing to base instincts, making outlandish claims, resorting to falsehoods, and pooh-poohing details and expertise”…  certainly describes Donald Trump.

When I was a new lawyer, the partner for whom I was doing most of my work had a saying: “There’s only one legal question, and that’s what do we do?”

If it is difficult to argue with the Brookings critique of digital democracy–and it is–his question becomes not just pertinent, but critical. What do we do?

What can we do?

Kansas Again

I need to reread “What’s the Matter with Kansas.”

University regents in that state have passed a policy giving university presidents authority to discipline employees, up to termination, for “improper use of social media.”

The action–characterized by an AAUP blogger as “a freakout”–came in the wake of an ill-considered tweet by a tenured Journalism professor. David Guth posted the tweet after September shootings killed 13 people in Washington, D.C. It said, “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

In a later tweet, he apologized by saying “Some interpreted my tweet differently than it was intended,” Guth wrote. “I don’t want anyone’s children hurt. The fact my words were misconstrued is my fault.” Guth said that he was a professional communicator but hadn’t done a good job of explaining his position.

Conservative legislators threatened to vote against university funding if Guth remained on the faculty. Rather than defending the principle of academic freedom, the President responded by relieving Guth of his classroom duties, and the regents responded by issuing the new social media policy.

 “Social media” was defined as including but not being limited to blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. “Improper use” was defined as “indirectly inciting violence or immediate breach of peace; being contrary to the best interests of the university; disclosing without authority any confidential student information, protected health care information, personnel records, personal financial information or confidential research data; or impairing discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, having a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impeding the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interfering with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affecting the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.”

“Contrary to the best interests of the University”? “Impairing harmony?” In whose opinion? Can we spell “vague and overbroad”?

A group of University Distinguished Professors from Kansas State has called for the immediate repeal of the amendment, pointing out that social media have become valued venues for the dissemination of research, and reminding the regents that  “The free and open exchange of ideas is essential to fulfilling the mission of any university.”

Let’s de-construct this sorry episode, shall we?

The whole purpose of a university is to encourage the search for truth. That search requires the broadest possible exploration and exchange of competing ideas–a mission that cannot be achieved if professors can be sanctioned for the expression of unpopular or offensive ideas. The purpose of tenure is not–as too many in and out of the academy seem to think– to provide faculty with job security; it was intended to prevent precisely the sort of retribution for unpopular expression that the Kansas legislature demanded and the University obediently imposed.

Intemperate and ill-conceived expression is the price we pay for protecting freedom of speech and scholarly inquiry from government interference.

We’ve become used to legislative bodies demonstrating a lack of acquaintance with basic American principles, but we might have expected better of the regents.

Of course, it is Kansas…