Category Archives: media

Your attention, please!

Recent history can be told as the story of a struggle for people’s attention. Propagandists and advertisers play leading roles.

Attention can be focused or fickle. You can be reading a blog (what else?) but perhaps you are thinking of something else or tempted to click on another story. This much is obvious. It is the way most people live their lives: their attention shifts from one thing to another, sometime lingering and focused, sometimes distracted.

It’s possible to say that life, at a psychological or perception level, is what we pay attention to. Most people would like to make their attention choices themselves, but many groups would like to influence these choices.

It may sound strange to write history in terms of attention, but this is just what Tim Wu has done in his stimulating book The Attention Merchants. Histories are usually written in terms of empires and wars, or perhaps the dynamics of class struggle, or in terms of oppression and democratisation, or the rise of agriculture and industry, or any of a number of frameworks that look at social processes. Each approach provides its own insights but also its own limitations. Wu offers a different approach, and it is illuminating.

            In essence, during the past two centuries there has been an evolving struggle to capture people’s attention via various forms of media and content, with governments and advertisers the key drivers and various forms of media their tools. Luckily, it’s possible for people, the targets of attention management, to resist.

It’s hard to imagine life before media. Try to think of a life without screens, even without any printed material. This would be a life of interacting with other people face-to-face, or engaging in hunting or farming or rituals. This is still the way of life for some people today, but in industrialised parts of the world it is rare. Instead, most people spend hours each day with one or more forms of media, most commonly involving a screen of some size.

Enter mass media

The earliest important mass medium was print. Wu recounts the experiences of US entrepreneur Benjamin Day who in 1833 pioneered a formula for increasing sales of newspapers: report on scandalous or amazing events, titillating the audience, sell at a low price, and make money by selling advertisements. It was an early indication of the commercial advantage of aiming low.

Skip forward to World War I. In Britain, government planners sought to increase recruitment into the army and came up with an effective method: saturate all media with patriotic messages. This meant billboards, leaflets, newspapers and magazines. It was hard to escape the messages, and recruitment soared. This was the first major use of mass propaganda and it was an outstanding success.

            Fifteen years later, the Nazis came to power in Germany and copied the British and US war propaganda techniques. By this time more technologies were available, notably radio. Hitler perfected the technique of mass rallies to muster patriotic fervour. However, rallies involved only a small fraction of the population. To take the message to others in the country, radio was the preferred medium; the Nazis controlled the broadcasts.

Saturation propaganda requires a near-monopoly over communication. It is easiest to implement when governments control media. Traditional government propaganda efforts remain important today, especially in countries with repressive governments like China, Iran and Russia.

Most of Wu’s story about attention merchants, though, is about efforts to capture attention for commercial purposes. He recounts the early days of television in the US when the small black-and-white screen was a novelty — and incredibly influential. Some early programmes were high-brow, but broadcasters soon learned that audiences could be drawn more effectively to entertainment such as the show “I love Lucy.” During the 1950s, significant proportions of the US population were watching the very same shows at the same time. It was truly a mass audience. It thus had elements of propaganda, except that the audiences were sold to advertisers.

The story of early television illustrates one of Wu’s key themes: a new medium can capture attention, but then competition begins a process of lowering costs and degrading the product.

One of the costs of producing television programmes is paying the actors. Is there a way to produce shows with the “talent” appearing voluntarily or at low cost? The answer is yes: so-called reality TV, which could draw in audiences. The stations could sell the audiences to advertisers while reducing their overheads.

To capture attention, media proprietors discovered, it is effective to lure people with stories of scandal and gore. This was true of the earliest newssheets and remains true in the age of social media. Rather than appeal to the rational mind and a concern for knowledge and enlightenment, media producers have found it more effective to appeal to the intuitive mind with what is now called “click-bait”: online stories seemingly so intriguing that it is hard to avoid clicking on them. Many of these stories are false or misleading and most are trivial, for example dealing with the peccadilloes of minor celebrities.

The same processes of degradation and cost-reduction have been played out with each new generation of media technology, including print, film, radio, television, desktop computers, and smartphones. Along the way, Wu describes how various other developments, for example video games and Google, fit into the picture.

Media enter private life

As new media technologies emerged, they made an amazing assault on traditional barriers between public and private. In the years before radio, people believed home life was inviolate. There might be posters in public places, but it was unthinkable for advertising to enter the home. Along came radio, initially in a public interest form. But then commercial stations figured out how to entice audiences while including ads as part of broadcasts.

Media infiltration into people’s personal lives has largely been voluntary: for most individuals, the immediate benefits seem to outweigh the costs. So today many people carry their smartphones everywhere, even into bed, allowing click-bait into nearly every personal situation. Smartphones are the fourth screen in the evolution of media entrants into people’s lives, following the big screen (film), the little screen (TV) and the desktop computer screen. Each screen initially had amazing success in capturing attention with high-quality fare, then entered a decline: a degradation of quality and an increase in commercial exploitation.

Wu’s story would be unrelentingly negative except that audiences usually rebel, eventually. An overload of advertising and trivial content triggers a cultural shift towards consumer choice in a different direction. The latest iteration of this rebellion is the massive uptake of ad blockers on smartphones and the popularity of Netflix, with many viewers bingeing on episodes or even entire series.

Tim Wu

Learning about struggles over attention

The Attention Merchants is engaging to read. Wu tells about successive developments through the lives and strategies of key players in each era, making the book an enjoyable way to learn about media. It might be said that the book serves as an antidote to the media degradation described in it.

Much of the story centres on the US, especially in the previous century. Wu does not recount the history of media in diverse countries or under different political systems (aside from Nazi Germany). Compared to most other countries, the US is very high in individualism and commercialism. So whether a similar narrative involving the struggle for attention, with advertising playing a key role, applies elsewhere remains to be determined.

That Wu’s analysis is US-centric need not detract from its potential value. Decades ago, I taught a course titled “Information and communication theories” and introduced students to a series of theories, for example signal transmission theory and semiotics. Today, if I were teaching the same course, I would add attention theory to the syllabus and add extracts from The Attention Merchants to the reading list. My guess is that Wu’s approach to understanding media dynamics via a struggle over attention would speak to students’ experience far more meaningfully than most other theories.

Later, Wendy Varney and I wrote a book, Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating Against Repression. In one chapter, we canvassed a variety of communication theories for their potential relevance to nonviolent struggles: transmission theory, media effects theory, semiotics, medium theory, political economy and organisational theory. Attention theory, Wu style, definitely needs to be added to this list. Nonviolent activists live in a world saturated with media in different forms, and to get their message out and to build support for campaigns, they must deal with communication systems and attention merchants with other agendas. This is an issue for another time.

Wu’s story to me highlights a great imbalance in efforts to attract attention. Media companies and advertisers have enormous financial and political resources. They hire the best and brightest of skilled workers, many of whom devote their creativity and energy to trying to entice people’s attention, often in ways difficult to resist. In the face of this attention-harvesting juggernaut, opposing forces are unorganised. For example, school teachers aim to encourage learning but have to compete with attention-grabbers that are highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, commercialism is increasingly entering classrooms. When teachers use digital devices in the classroom for educational purposes, almost inevitably they open another portal to advertising and attention capture. Where are the educational planning research centres with researchers developing strategies that will appeal to young people and build habits of attention control to counter the merchants?

            No doubt it would be possible to identify quite a range of initiatives that provide alternatives to the efforts of attention merchants, for example movements against public advertising, designers of ad blockers, promoters of mindfulness and a host of others. These efforts are worthy but for the most part are a limited challenge to the likes of video games, Facebook, Google and other corporate behemoths that push advertising out along with their services. There is much to be done to regain personal and collective control of attention.

“The attending public were first captured reading daily newspapers, then listening to evening broadcasts, before they were entranced into sitting glued to the television at key intervals, and finally, over the 1990s, into surrendering some more of their waking time, opening their eyes and minds to computers – the third screen – in dens and offices around the world. … By 2015, the fourth screen would be in the hands of virtually everyone, seizing nearly three of the average American’s waking hours. And so it would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchants’ manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes, too, and of course the ads.” (pp. 309-310)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Daily data: be sceptical

Be careful about data you encounter every day, especially in the news.

 beavis-butthead-and-numbers

If you watch the news, you are exposed to all sorts of numbers, intended to provide information. Some might be reliable, such as football scores, but with others it’s harder to know, for example the number of people killed in a bomb attack in Syria, the percentage of voters supporting a policy, the proportion of the federal budget spent on welfare, or the increase in the average global temperature.

Should you trust the figures or be sceptical? If you want to probe further, what should you ask?

To answer these questions, it’s useful to understand statistics. Taking a course or reading a textbook is one approach, but that will mainly give you the mathematical side. To develop a practical understanding, there are various articles and books aimed at the general reader. Demystifying Social Statistics gives a left-wing perspective, a tradition continued by the Radstats Group. Joel Best has written several books, for example Damned Lies and Statistics, providing valuable examinations of statistics about contested policy issues. The classic treatment is the 1954 book How to Lie with Statistics.

Most recently, I’ve read the recently published book Everydata by John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck. It’s engaging, informative and ideal for readers who want a practical understanding without encountering any formulas. It is filled with examples, mostly from the US.

everydata

            You might have heard about US states being labelled red or blue. Red states are where people vote Republican and blue states are where people vote Democrat. Johnson and Gluck use this example to illustrate aggregated data and how it can be misleading. Just because Massachusetts is a blue state doesn’t mean no one there votes Republican. In fact, quite a lot of people in Massachusetts vote Republican, just not a majority. Johnson and Gluck show pictures of the US with the data broken down by county rather than by state, and a very different picture emerges.

red_state_blue_state-svg
R
ed, blue and in-between states

            In Australia, aggregated data is commonly used in figures for economic growth. Typically, a figure is given for gross domestic product or GDP, which might have grown by 2 per cent in the past year. But this figure hides all sorts of variation. The economy in different states can grow at different rates, and different industries grow at different rates, and indeed some industries contract. When the economy grows, this doesn’t mean everyone benefits. In recent decades, most of the increased income goes to the wealthiest 1% and many in the 99% are no better off, or go backwards.

The lesson here is that when you hear a figure, think about what it applies to and whether there is underlying variation.

In the Australian real estate market, figures are published for the median price of houses sold. The median is the middle figure. If three houses were sold in a suburb, for $400,000, $1 million and $10 million, the median is $1 million: one house sold for less and one for more. The average, calculated as total sales prices divided by the number of sales, is far greater: it is $3.8 million, namely $0.4m + $1m + $10m divided by 3.

The median price is a reasonable first stab at the cost of housing, but it can be misleading in several ways. What if most of those selling are the low-priced or the high-priced houses? If just three houses sold, how reliable is the median? If the second house sold for $2 million rather than $1 million, the median would become $2 million, quite a jump.

sydney-houses sydney-house-expensive
Is the average or median house price misleading?

            In working on Everydata, Johnson and Gluck contacted many experts and have used quotes from them to good effect. For example, they quote Emily Oster, author of Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong, saying “I think the biggest issue we all face is over-interpreting anecdotal evidence” and “It is difficult to force yourself to ignore these anecdotes – or, at a minimum, treat them as just one data point – and draw conclusions from data instead.” (p. 6)

Everydata addresses sampling, averages, correlations and much else, indeed too much to summarise here. If Johnson and Gluck have a central message, it is to be sceptical of data and, if necessary, investigate in more depth. This applies especially to data encountered in the mass media. For example, the authors comment, “We’ve seen many cases in which a finding is reported in the news as causation, even though the underlying study notes that it is only correlation.” (p. 46) Few readers ever check the original research papers to see whether the findings have been reported accurately. Johnson and Gluck note that data coming from scientific papers can also be dodgy, especially when vested interests are involved.

The value of a university education

For decades, I’ve read stories about the benefits of a university education. Of course there can be many sorts of benefits, for example acquiring knowledge and skills, but the stories often present a figure for increased earnings through a graduate’s lifetime.

money-education

            This is an example of aggregated data. Not everyone benefits financially from having a degree. If you’re already retired, there’s no benefit.

There’s definitely a cost involved, both fees and income forgone: you could be out earning a salary instead. So for a degree to help financially, you forgo income while studying and hope to earn more afterwards.

The big problem with calculations about benefits is that they don’t compare like with like. They compare the lifetime earnings of those who obtained degrees to the lifetime earnings of those who didn’t, but these groups aren’t drawn randomly from a sample. Compared to those who don’t go to university, those who do are systematically different: they tend to come from well-off backgrounds, to have had higher performance in high school and to have a greater capacity for studying and deferred gratification.

Where’s the study of groups with identical attributes, for example identical twins, comparing the options of careers in the same field with and without a degree? Then there’s another problem. For some occupations, it is difficult or impossible to enter or advance without a degree. How many doctors or engineers do you know without degrees? It’s hardly fair to calculate the economic benefits of university education when occupational barriers are present. A fair comparison would look only at occupations where degrees are not important for entry or advancement, and only performance counts.

A final example

For those who want to go straight to takeaway messages, Johnson and Gluck provide convenient summaries of key points at the end of each chapter. However, there is much to savour in the text, with many revealing examples helping to make the ideas come alive. The following is one of my favourites (footnotes omitted).

 hamburger

Americans are bad at math. Like, really bad. In one study, the U.S. ranked 21st out of 23 countries. Perhaps that explains why A&W Restaurants’ burger was a flop.

As reported in the New York Times Magazine, back in the early 1980s, the A&W restaurant chain wanted to compete with McDonald’s and its famous Quarter Pounder. So A&W decided to come out with the Third Pounder. Customers thought it tasted better, but it just wasn’t selling. Apparently people thought a quarter pound (1/4) was bigger than a third of a pound (1/3).

Why would they think 1/4 is bigger than 1/3? Because 4 is bigger than 3.

Yes, seriously.

People misinterpreted the size of a burger because they couldn’t understand fractions. (p. 101)

 john-h-johnson
John H. Johnson

mike-gluck
Mike Gluck

John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck, Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day (Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion, 2016)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Online and objectionable?

The Internet enables people to operate online, anonymously. When this capacity is used for damaging activities, what should be done?

encrypted

I’m a fan of being able to communicate online without revealing your identity. This is because I’ve known so many whistleblowers who are subject to serious reprisals. As soon as they go public, they are cut off from further information, and the reprisals divert attention from the issue they spoke out about. Leaking anonymously is usually a better option, reducing or eliminating reprisals, while the leaker can remain on the job and, if necessary, leak again.

Leaking can be done in various ways. The Internet makes it easier. Setting up a Yahoo email account at a public library is one option. Another is using encryption, including the Tor browser to hide web activity.

Then there are dissidents in countries where speaking out against the government can lead to dismissal, arrest, imprisonment and torture. Encrypted communication can be a vital tool for campaigners who are up against a repressive regime.

However, online anonymity can be used for other, less noble purposes. I was reminded of this by reading Jamie Bartlett’s book The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld. Bartlett, a researcher at the think tank Demos, knew about nefarious activities on the Internet and decided to investigate further. He pursued unfamiliar corners online, tracked down individuals who are involved, met them face-to-face and learned about how they operate.

the-dark-net-left

The Dark Net is a fascinating account. It is engagingly written and addresses a series of important topics, including trolling, racist organising, child pornography and illegal drug sales. Bartlett doesn’t try to force his views on the reader, but rather encourages thinking about the pros and cons of online anonymity.

Trolling

Trolling involves entering online discussions and seeking to cause trouble, upsetting people by making rude comments or trying to disrupt an entire discussion. Trolls may see success, from their viewpoint, as provoking an angry response.

Bartlett, as well as telling about cases of trolls who were exposed and prosecuted, was able to meet with a self-identified troll and discuss his motives and methods. Trolls may be quite ordinary people offline, but online they morph into nasty personas, sometimes taking numerous identities. They may pretend to adopt views contrary to their own and infiltrate forums in order to discredit them, for example pretending to be a racist making really objectionable comments.

Internet troll

Trolling has been around ever since the early days of computer-to-computer interaction, the precursors of the Internet. It is fostered by what’s called the online disinhibition effect, which means that when you are separated from people in time and space, you are more likely to behave without the usual restraints that apply when talking to someone face-to-face.

Bartlett entered the notorious /b/ board of the image-sharing website 4chan, where participants, almost all anonymous, vie with each other in making ingenious insults and outrageous statements. When a teenage girl entered for the first time, she was seen as a legitimate target. She was encouraged to post revealing photos of herself. Board regulars managed to determine her offline identity (“dox” her) by using cues in the background of her photos, and proceeded to send her photos to her parents, her classmates and friends.

This was what /b/ calls a “life ruin”: cyberbullying intended, as its name suggests, to result in long-term, sustained distress. It’s not the first time that /b/ has doxed camgirls. One elated participant celebrated the victory by creating another thread to share stories and screen grabs of dozens of other “classic” life ruins, posting photographs of a girl whose Facebook account had been hacked, her password changed, and the explicit pictures she’d posted on /b/ shared on her timeline. (p. 20)

Alarmingly, these trolls see nothing wrong with harming people. She deserved it, they think, because she was so foolish. But, as Bartlett notes, trolls can cause severe damage to a person’s life, even causing them to commit suicide. And it’s all done anonymously. Only very seldom is a troll held to account.

Porn

Another use of the Internet is for circulating pornography, for which there seems to be an unending demand, with porn sites constituting a good proportion of what’s on the web. However, the traditional porn industry is not thriving. The reason is the availability of webcams, enabling a huge increase in self-made sex displays.

Bartlett made contact with a successful online performer, Vex, met her in real life and attended one of her shows, watching her (and, on this occasion, two other women) perform using the site Chaturbate. Watchers can sign in for the show and express their appreciation through payment of Chaturbate tokens. Bartlett watched a particularly lucrative show.

I ask Vex why she thinks she is so popular. “Traditional porn tends to be standardized and unrealistic,” she replies. “I guess I’m a real person in a real room.” This view is one put forward by Feona Attwood, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University: “It’s a better kind of porn: somehow more real, raw, and innovative than the products of the mainstream porn industry.” (p. 171)

Chaturbate-Token-Hack

Something more disturbing is the availability of child porn on the Internet. It is hidden well, using encryption, but there is lots of it. Bartlett tells how child porn was in decline in the 1980s, seen by law enforcement as a low priority. The Internet provided a huge boost to the availability of child porn, with interest piqued by “gateway” images of older teenagers, gradually leading to interest in images of younger children. This in turn stimulated greater supply, itself made easier for dark-side entrepreneurs.

Bartlett met “Michael”, a seemingly ordinary middle-class man, who started watching more pornography in his 40s, with an interest in youthful bodies, and gradually moved from legal to illegal pornography. Then he was caught, and his life upended.

Bartlett provides a lot of context, quoting various sources and authorities, for example noting that the perpetrators of most sexual abuse continue to be family members and that evidence about the connection between watching child porn and becoming an offender is “inconclusive”. He also met with British police who specialise in tracking down online child porn so it can be shut down and the producers and users prosecuted. The British teams have been fairly successful in closing down British operations, but there are numerous offenders in other countries, and in many of them the police don’t care or are bribed not to interfere.

Anonymous commerce

It is now possible to buy and sell goods using anonymous digital currency, of which the best known is bitcoin. Libertarian-oriented programmers pour enormous energy into designing digital currencies that enable anonymity for sellers and purchasers, at the same time providing records of transactions.

bitcoin

Bartlett purchased some marijuana online using a prominent drug-sale site, Silk Road 2.0, that offers a wide variety of pharmaceutical and illegal drugs. He didn’t use his credit card, of course, but rather bitcoin. He did use his home address, but he could have used some other address. Only after receiving his gram of marijuana through the post did he go online to note this, so the seller could receive the payment, which had been put in escrow. Sellers are rated by buyers, just like on Amazon, providing a trust-based system in which everyone is anonymous. The site takes a small commission, but no taxes are paid. Indeed, as Bartlett discovered, avoidance of taxes or any other government control is a key motivation of the programmers designing anonymous currencies.

Pro-ana

Bartlett also delved into the disturbing world of websites providing support for anorexics. Many of these provide assistance and encouragement to overcome this illness, but some, the so-called “pro-ana” sites, provide a different sort of support: to become ever thinner. The Internet has enabled anorexics to interact with each other, to share pictures of their emaciated physiques (and say how attractive they are), to tell about their diets (how little they eat in a day) and their struggles against eating, and to encourage each other to maintain dietary discipline for the goal of thinness. Although anorexia predated the Internet, the pro-ana sites provide a new source of encouragement for dangerous weight loss and thus a continuation or accentuation of the illness.

ana_big14

Alternatives?

Bartlett, through his tour through dark parts of the net, highlights negative aspects of online anonymity. He entered this world recognising the positives, especially the capacity to organise against repressive governments. However, even when examining the less positive areas, such as child porn and pro-ana sites, he maintains an admirable suspension of judgement, in part because he is genuinely impressed by the complexity of the issues. None of the areas turned out to be as one-dimensional as he anticipated.

jamie_bartlett_0
Jamie Bartlett

Spy agencies do not like online anonymity. In the US and Britain, they have been pushing for encryption systems to have backdoors so the agencies can read anyone’s email. They argue this is necessary for tackling terrorism, with child porn offering a useful supplementary argument. However, the case for backdoors is fundamentally flawed, because terrorists are not going to use an insecure system. What the agencies really want is to maintain surveillance over citizens.

An underlying assumption in the contest between spy agency agendas and their opponents who defend civil liberties is that online anonymity is a key to enabling abuses. However, while it might seem on the surface that online anonymity is central to trolling, racist organising, child porn and the sale of illegal drugs, perhaps this attributes too much to the communications medium. After all, the postal system and the telephone are used by terrorists, criminals and paedophiles, but this does not mean governments should have the capacity to open all letters or listen to all calls, especially because such a capacity will enable more crimes, by the government itself, than it would prevent.

For each questionable use of the Internet, it is worth exploring a range of options for challenging the underlying social problem. Concerning the sale of illegal drugs: instead of trying to shut down online operations, a different approach is to decriminalise drug use and to introduce a range of measures to reduce the harmful effects of drugs. Specialists on challenging racism, anorexia and child pornography also can offer alternative pathways. The problems are in the “real world”, not just online. It is easy to point the finger at the Internet, the medium of communication, but more challenging to go to the roots of the problems.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Ted Mitew comments:

There is a noticeable stratification in access to real anonymity both in terms of the carrying layer and the destination:

[1] most people access the net through a layer of zero anonymity or pseudo anonymity at best, and their destination is not anonymous either;

[2] a small percentage access the net through a layer of high anonymity [VPN] and their destination may be somewhat anonymous (for example, members-only forums);

[3] an even smaller percentage access a completely different and highly anonymous network (for example, I2P) through an anonymous layer (VPN).

Groups 2 and 3 are not going to be affected by any government efforts to regulate anonymity, but ironically it is those two groups who have the know-how and will to defend anonymity.

We’re being analysed

A new era of data analysis is dawning, and it’s because people are sharing so much information about themselves.

okcupid-logo

Christian Rudder is one of the founders of the popular online dating site OkCupid. People under 50 can go to the site, enter information about themselves and then make contact with prospective dates and mates according to suggestions made by the site’s algorithms. Rudder realised he was sitting on a mine of data that can reveal new insights about the human condition. He’s written a book about it, titled Dataclysm (London: Fourth Estate, 2014).

At OkCupid, users make judgements about various things, including the looks of other people. Examining only the judgements of self-declared heterosexuals, Rudder plots the age of the member of the opposite sex who is rated most attractive. For women up to the age of 30, the most attractive man is slightly older; thereafter, the most attractive man is slightly younger than they are. Rudder shows this on this graph.

women-prefer-men-by-age

Then he does the same thing with men, and comes up with a very different sort of graph.

 men-prefer-women-by-age

The men, overwhelmingly, see 20 to 23-year old women as most attractive. Not too surprising, perhaps, but here is the bonus. This sort of data enables research that overcomes many of the shortcomings of conventional psychological research, for which the experimental subjects are mostly university undergraduates in artificial conditions. On OkCupid, a broader cross-section of the population is included, and the conditions are real-life.

There are methodological obstacles to be sure. One of them is that people lie, for example about their own attributes. But there’s something more in the data that people are unlikely to lie about: their behaviour. Subscribers at OkCupid, after obtaining the address of a possible match, can choose to contact the person, or not, and the recipient of a message can choose to respond, or not. Given the information collected by OkCupid, it is possible to look for correlations between this behaviour and any number of attributes, for example age, looks, ethnicity and sexuality.

There is yet another source of information: the words people use to describe themselves. Rudder provides some useful tables of words characteristically used by particular groups on OkCupid, for example white men. He tabulates the words used by white men that most distinguish them from black men, Latinos and Asian men: these include “my blue eyes,” “blonde hair” and “ween.” In contrast, words most distinctively used by black men include “dreads,” “jill scott” and “haitian.” And so on with many more words for each group, and for various other groups, such as Asian women. Then there are the antithetical words, namely the words a group is least likely to use compared to other groups. For Latinos, these include “southern accent,” “from the midwest” and “ann arbor.”

Rudder uses data from OkCupid because he knows it best, but he also draws on data from Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites that have far larger user numbers. He provides fascinating insights by looking at people’s locations, political views, sexuality and much else. Who would have thought, for example, that data can be used to show that two people meeting through an online dating site, with no prior information about appearance, would be equally satisfied with the date independently of the difference between their attractiveness ratings. As Rudder notes, “people appear to be heavily preselecting online for something [attractiveness] that, once they sit down in person, doesn’t seem important to them” (p. 90).

Christian-Rudder-credit-Vic
Christian Rudder

Rudder confirms the widely noted bias in favour of good looking women. He goes beyond this to comment on a perverse result:

Think about how the Shiftgig data changes our understanding of women’s perceived workplace performance. They are evidently being sought out (and exponentially so) for a trait [beauty] that has nothing to do with their ability to do a job well. Meanwhile, men have no such selection imposed. It is therefore simple probability that women’s failure rate, as a whole, will be higher. And, crucially, the criteria are to blame, not the people. Imagine if men, no matter the job, were hired for their physical strength. You would, by design, end up with strong men facing challenges that strength has nothing to do with. In the same way, to hire women based on their looks is to (statistically) guarantee poor performance. It’s either that or you limit their opportunities. Thus Ms. Wolf [Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth]: “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.” She was speaking primarily in a sexual context, but here, we see how it plays out, with mathematical equivalence, in the workplace. (p. 121)

One of Rudder’s key topics is racism. One way to detect racist views using Internet data is by looking at the terms people put into search engines. Using Google data (in particular, the Google Trends tool), Rudder plots the number of searches for the word “nigger” against the months before and after Barack Obama’s election victory in November 2008. Several spikes in the graph connect to significant events in the campaign. As Rudder puts it, the graph enables you to “watch the country come to grips with the prospect of a black president” (p. 129). Rudder also uses online data to show that racism in the US is pervasive; biases are widespread rather than restricted to a few open racists. On the other hand, racial biases shown by US data are nearly absent in comparable data about people in Britain and Japan.

Then there is online mobbing, when people gang up against a target. Rudder uses the example of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a poor attempt at humour. She was condemned by thousands for racism, received death threats and lost her job. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was followed by tens of millions of people. Rudder tells about his own effort to inject some sense into the conversation about Sacco, only to be countered by a damaging claim about Sacco — a claim that turned out to be false.

HasJustineLandedYet

Rudder reviews what researchers say about rumours, gossip and human sacrifice, as social phenomena in history and in the Internet age.

So much of what makes the Internet useful for communication — asynchrony, anonymity, escapism, a lack of central authority — also makes it frightening. People can act however they want (and say whatever they want) without consequences, a phenomenon first studied by John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University. His name for it is the “online disinhibition effect.” The webcomic Penny Arcade puts it a little better:
Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory
normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad (p. 145)

Reading Dataclysm

Rudder comments that it is strange to be writing a book, in old fashioned hard copy, in the digital age. But what a book it is! It is stylishly laid out, with an elegant font and beautifully crafted diagrams. It is not quite a coffee table book — there are no colour photos — but for an intellectual work it is exceptionally attractive.

Rudder’s writing style is equally striking, with a mixture of colloquial language, wide-ranging cultural references, scholarly citations and astute observations. Referring to the Twitterstorm against Justine Sacco, Rudder muses:

… this, to me, is why the data generated from outrage could ultimately be so important. It embodies (and therefore lets us study) the contradictions inherent in us all. It shows we fight hardest against those who can least fight back. And, above all, it runs to ground our age-old desire to raise ourselves up by putting other people down. Scientists have established that the drive is as old as time, but this doesn’t mean they understand it yet. As Gandhi put it, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”

I invite you to imagine when it will be a mystery no more. That will be the real transformation — to know not just that people are cruel, and in what amounts, and when, but why. Why we search for “nigger jokes” when a black man wins; why inspiration is hollow-eyed, stripped, and above all, #thin; why people scream at each other about the true age of the earth. And why we seem to define ourselves as much by what we hate as by what we love. (pp. 148–149)

Implications

Rudder suggests that a new approach to studying human behaviour is emerging. Rather than relying on studies of undergraduate students in experimental (artificial) conditions, data will become available for examining human behaviour in “natural” conditions, namely when people think no one is looking at them. This is the idea underlying the subtitle of Dataclysm: Who We Are* — with the footnote *When We Think No One’s Looking.

social-analytics

Rudder is quite aware that online data are incomplete. Those who use OkCupid are not a perfect cross-section of the population between 18 and 50. Even Facebook, with its billions of users, does not incorporate everyone. But there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative jump in what it is possible to analyse: the behaviour of millions of people in natural conditions. This requires access to the data and knowledge of quantitative methodologies.

Rudder comments on the disappearance of privacy, and the fact that most people seem not to care too much: they willingly share all sorts of intimate data, for example on Facebook. It is now possible for marketers to predict fairly accurately, on the basis of automated analysis of data and words, whether you are gay, straight, unemployed or pregnant, among other information relevant for marketing. Analysts are working on how to assess a person’s intelligence from their online presence. Few people realise the potential implications for their careers of their casual interactions on social media.

Conclusion

Masses of data about individuals now available can be mined for insights about human behaviour, and many of these insights are fascinating, sometimes confirming conventional ideas and sometimes challenging them. Readers of Dataclysm can obtain a good sense of a future, part of which is already here, in which data obtained about seemingly innocent activities — such as your Facebook likes, the words you use on Twitter or the terms you enter into search engines — can be used to draw inferences about your prejudices, activities and capabilities. Perhaps, like Rudder, you may decide to become a bit more cautious about your online activities.

Social-Analyst

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

News, fast and slow

Are you wasting your time watching the news?

watching politics on the screen

How much time do you spend following the daily news? Some people pay no attention; others watch a half-hour TV news show every day; yet others scour a range of Internet sources, looking for different angles on breaking stories. Some may devote a couple of hours daily to keeping up with the latest stories.

Some years ago, I did a study of the Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed in just a few months in 1994 in the African country of Rwanda. My aim was to look at tactics used by the perpetrators to reduce outrage over their actions, so I read comprehensive accounts of the genocide. I tracked down a dozen or so books, found various articles and watched some videos. Prior to this study, I had heard about the genocide in news reports, but after studying it in some depth years later, I realised that I hadn’t really understood much about it — and it was far worse than I had imagined.

The studies of the Rwandan genocide led me to some related writings about wars in central Africa, especially in the Congo (officially the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I was astounded to discover that millions of people had died. I didn’t remember hearing much about that. Some sources called this the First African World War. It was salutary to remember that the so-called First World War was primarily a European war.

Congo soldiers

This experience got me thinking. During the 1990s, I had probably spent 30 minutes per day consuming the news, primarily by reading newspapers, a total of 180 hours. Would I have been better informed by instead spending those 180 hours reading authoritative studies of important world events? I think so. Careful studies are seldom very current. After all, as more information becomes available, it’s possible to write a more definitive and thoughtful analysis of events and their meaning and significance. So what’s the advantage of having the latest news?

Biases in the news

Western news reporting is systematically biased in a number of ways, so following the news gives a highly distorted view of the world. Bias in world news is especially important because few people have personal knowledge about events in other countries. Think about the wars in central Africa, with millions dead, but little coverage in western media. Other conflicts received disproportionate attention. The conflict in Israel-Palestine, with some 5000 deaths since 1990, receives vastly more coverage. Why should it be so?

Stealth-Conflicts

The answer is provided by Virgil Hawkins in his important book Stealth Conflicts. He analyses attention given to conflicts since the end of the cold war. He starts by enumerating the most deadly conflicts – such as those in the Congo, Angola, Burundi, Liberia and Algeria – on down to far less deadly ones such as Israel-Palestine. Then he examines attention given to the different conflicts by four groups: governments, media, non-government organisations, and academics.

Virgil-Hawkins
Virgil Hawkins

One of Hawkins’ conclusions is that most coverage and attention is concentrated on a few chosen conflicts, such as Bosnia in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s, while most of the others escape attention: they occur by stealth. He says there appears to be no correlation between how deadly a conflict is and how much attention it receives from any of the four groups. Academics, who you might expect would have the opportunity to study the full range of deadly conflicts, are swayed by agendas set by governments and the mass media. Even human rights organisations are pushed to follow these same agendas: in order to obtain funding from governments, foundations and the public, they need to address problems that others think are important. There are many honourable exceptions, but according to Hawkins the overall trends are clear. Wars and deaths in Africa, especially south of the Sahara, are almost invisible so far as the rest of the world is concerned. Even media in African countries will often report on conflicts far afield, in Afghanistan or Iraq, yet hardly mention a major conflict in a neighbouring African country.

Hawkins points out that the wars in the Congo led to nearly as many deaths as all other conflicts in the world since the end of the cold war, but they have received little attention.

conflict-death-tolls
Hawkins’ diagram of death tolls. The big circle is Congo.

This led me to reflect on my reading about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, about which a fair bit has been written. There is even a major Hollywood film, Hotel Rwanda. But few people know that the aftermath of the genocide was an invasion of the Congo by forces from Rwanda and other countries, leading to massive loss of life. One of the challenges is the complexity of the events. There is no simple storyline for media, governments and others to adopt.

Hotel-Rwanda

The standard news values of the mass media, for example putting priority on conflict, locality and prominent individuals, mean that some important stories receive little attention. The media’s quest for markets leads to news as entertainment rather than information. Governments and corporations do what they can to shape news coverage. Using news coverage to become “informed” about international affairs may be like finding out about cars by watching advertisements for them.

Slow news

For some valuable advice, you can read Peter Laufer’s short book Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer. Laufer was a journalist and an avid news consumer, but in the spirit of the slow food movement, he advocates care and caution when dealing with the flood of information now available under the label “news.” He provides 29 rules for understanding and dealing with news. Each one is worthy of consideration.

Slow-news

A basic theme in Slow News is to avoid the rush of urgent news and instead concentrate on solid reporting that provides depth and context, and is not one-sided. In many cases, “breaking news” is based on preliminary information, later found to be incomplete, misleading or simply unimportant. How urgent is it to know about the latest information about a mass shooting in the US, an avalanche in Peru or a bombing in Yemen? Can you wait until tomorrow or the next week? Usually, unless you are directly affected.

CNN-breaking news

Laufer is especially critical of the volume of irrelevant information arriving electronically, for example on Twitter. He is critical of citizen journalism, at least when those involved know little about the topic and do not distinguish between important and trivial information.

Laufer points to the role of governments and corporations in shaping the news. He advises obtaining information from multiple sources that give different points of view while avoiding advertisements pretending to be news stories.

It is apparent that Laufer still likes news. He just prefers it to be solid. He likes to read newspapers in the old-fashioned ink-on-paper version (rule 21: “seek news that does not require batteries”). He advocates avoiding news-only channels like CNN because they recycle the same stories throughout the day. He also advocates cutting back on the number of different forms of media for obtaining news, in particular recommending getting rid of your television, because in a 30-minute news programme there is little content compared to what can be read in a newspaper in the same time.

woman-reading-newspaper-airport-628x363

Rule 22 is “Don’t become a news junkie.” Some people always want to know the latest, and end up spending hours every day, but are seldom all that much better informed.

Laufer likes local news: information about people in the neighbourhood, about things that affect your life, such as what is happening at the local school or government body, or what plans are being made for construction or energy management. The implication is to encourage local journalism, such as neighbourhood newspapers, and cut back on consumption of national and international news.

Local news is where people have the best chance of being able to assess the quality and significance of reporting, because they have personal knowledge and can benefit from additional information. Few people have personal knowledge about what is reported in international news, so biases in selection and emphasis are harder to overcome.

peter-laufer-e457c78d919a4f44525bc7fe6d9d993365c68604-s400-c85
Peter Laufer

This suggests a rule of thumb: for local events, seek rapid information; for distant events, take your time. This brings me back to Hawkins’ treatment of stealth conflicts: international news provides a highly distorted sense of deadly conflicts around the world. So to understand these, for most people it is better to avoid daily news coverage and instead seek authoritative studies giving historical and political context.

On the other hand, perhaps you like to watch the news as a form of entertainment. The latest ructions involving politicians are like a sporting event, or perhaps a soap opera. That’s fine. Just keep in mind that the really important things affecting our lives are probably happening elsewhere, in a slow or stealthy process that slips under the radar of what is called news.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Kathy Flynn for valuable comments.