Category Archives: media

Truth versus bullshit

Who is responsible for fake news? And what can be done about it?

• Trump offering free one-way tickets to Africa & Mexico for those who wanna leave America.
• Police find 19 white female bodies in freezers with “Black Lives Matter” carved into skin.
• Donald Trump protester speaks out: “I was paid $3,500 to protest Trump’s rally”.

During the 2016 US election campaign, teenagers in the town of Veles in Macedonia found a way to make some money by posting material on big social media sites. Facebook gets its income from advertisements, and gives tiny payments to suppliers of content. The teenagers could make money if their material attracted lots of readers, so they made up outrageous stories that they thought would find an audience.

Some fake stories, from the teenagers or others, do find an audience, like the ones listed above about Trump and Black Lives Matter, which were among the top 15 fake news stories in 2016.

Veles, Macedonia

Some made-up stories seem so plausible that readers share them with their friends. As the shares and retweets multiply, a story begins trending. It might even be reported in the mainstream media.

So who is responsible? The Macedonian teenagers, for sure. But they wouldn’t bother except for the economic model provided by social media. The advertisers on social media usually don’t care; they benefit when a story generates lots of clicks. The mass media are hurting financially and so do much less fact-checking, so bogus stories sometimes are run. Then there are the readers – that’s us – who think a story is worth sharing and don’t take the trouble to check whether it’s genuine.

Post-truth

James Ball is an experienced journalist who cares about the news and is alarmed by its corruption. In his book Post-Truth he tells about the problem, those implicated in it, and what can be done about it.

The problem is far deeper than the spread of made-up stories. News can be distorted, one-sided and in other ways misleading. The label “fake news,” when used to refer to manufactured fantasies, is inadequate to capture the full extent of the problem.

Ball provides an informative and often eye-opening tour of the issues, giving numerous examples to illustrate his analysis and recommendations. Ball’s preferred term is “bullshit.” This refers to claims that are neither right nor wrong but rather indifferent to the truth. When bullshit fills the air, audiences may despair of figuring out what’s really going on and start distrusting every source of news, including the more established ones. The subtitle of Post-Truth is How Bullshit Conquered the World.

Ball starts with the seemingly obligatory stories of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, canvassing the use of bullshit in these campaigns. He then examines six groups involved in spreading bullshit. Politicians are important players, many of whom want to manipulate audiences and use public relations, spin and other techniques. Then there are “old media” – newspapers, television, radio – that play a big role in propagating dubious stories. As the old media are squeezed financially, they have less capacity to check sources and are more likely to run fake stories.

Ball continues through new media, fake media (such as created by the Macedonian teenagers) and social media. Each of these helps spread bullshit. As in the case of old media, economic imperatives are involved. Online, at least where advertising reigns supreme, getting clicks is currency, so it becomes attractive to run or allow stories with little checking.

The final of the six chapters on who is spreading bullshit is titled “… and you.” Audiences contribute to the problem. Ball cites the experience of a news operation created to provide quality news, with a more positive slant. It drew on research showing that people wanted more of this sort of news. The news operation soon folded. What people say they want (high quality news) is not necessarily what they actually end up buying or reading.

Is this what audiences really want to read?

Audiences are attracted by scandals, gore, celebrity gossip and stories that reinforce their pre-existing views. The various forms of media, to survive financially, pander to these audience preferences. In this sort of environment, Ball says, bullshit thrives. Audiences are thus part of the problem.

A study of Twitter found that half the people who retweet a news story never bother even to read it. The implication is that people are reacting so quickly that they are driven by emotion rather than careful reflection. This is fertile ground for bullshit. It’s only possible to dream up some claim that appeals to readers’ gut reactions, namely something they’d like to believe is true, and then it starts spreading wildly with little or no scrutiny.

What to do

After explaining the problem, telling who is spreading bullshit and why, Ball turns to solutions. One of them is fact-checking. Some large media organisations, such as the New York Times, employ fact-checkers, and there are now a number of independent bodies undertaking this role.

Fact-checking is valuable, but Ball says it’s not a full solution. One shortcoming is that fake news runs far ahead of fact-checkers. Most news consumers read the politician’s lie or the fake story and never get around to seeing what fact-checkers say about it.

There’s also a deeper matter: manufactured news items are only part of the problem. The majority of suspect claims are some combination of right and wrong. They may be biased, selective or misleading, and not easily amenable to fact-checking.

What else? Ball provides advice for politicians, media and news consumers. For example, one piece of advice for politicians is not to explain why the opponent’s claim is wrong, because this just highlights the claim. Explaining why alarms about terrorism are misleading only makes terrorism more salient. It’s better to reframe the issue, namely to provide a different narrative.

One of Ball’s recommendations for media is to be careful about headlines, making sure they capture the key ideas in stories. Because many readers share stories based solely on headlines, some traditional headline-writing techniques need to be rethought.

Finally, Ball has recommendations for readers and voters. One of them is to put effort into thinking about stories and not just reacting to them emotionally. Another is to question the narratives that you believe as much or more as the ones you don’t believe. He also suggests learning basic statistics so you can assess claims made in the media.

James Ball

Collective action

All of Ball’s suggestions are worthwhile. If taken up, they would do a lot to change the media environment. But what would encourage people to follow his suggestions? Ball’s own analysis of the problem shows that politicians and the media are captives of large-scale processes, especially economic imperatives and audience emotional responses.

For decades, scholars and critics have been examining media cultures, especially the news, showing all sorts of systemic problems. Journalists and editors treat events as newsworthy when they conform to what are called “news values.” For example, prominent people involved in conflicts are more newsworthy than ordinary people behaving amicably. Hence, Trump’s campaign for a wall receives saturation coverage while amicable relations between people living near the border between Mexico and the US seldom warrant front-page media stories.

Ball doesn’t address the systemic biases in mass media coverage that pre-dated the rise in what he calls bullshit. His analysis is illuminating but needs to be supplemented.

The rise in use of the term “post-truth”

Is there any hope? A few readers of Post-Truth will take up Ball’s suggestions, but for major change, collective action is necessary. The lesson from history is that social movements are needed to bring about change from below. An individual can seek to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions, but to tackle global warming, mass action is needed.

What sort of collective action can make a difference regarding the news? There are signs in what is already happening in circles where accurate information is vital.  

When filter bubbles are needed

The mass media have a strong preference for reporting events involving violence: “if it bleeds, it leads.” This is frustrating for proponents of nonviolent action, especially when there is little media coverage of a large peaceful protest or the reports are about a minor scuffle rather than the issues at stake.

The methods of nonviolent action include strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, occupations and rallies. Research shows that nonviolent campaigns are more effective in overthrowing repressive regimes than armed struggle. Nonviolent action is the preferred approach of most social movements, including the labour, feminist, environmental and peace movements. Yet despite its effectiveness and widespread use, nonviolent action is marginalised in mass and social media coverage.

Mass prayer: not newsworthy

There’s an obvious reason for this. Nonviolent activists have no wealthy and powerful backers. In contrast, hundreds of billions of dollars annually are spent on militaries, with the full backing of governments and associated corporations. It is not surprising that media coverage follows power and money. Furthermore, the news values used by journalists to judge newsworthiness lead to a neglect of nonviolent alternatives.

In this context, nonviolent campaigns need to create their own news ecosystem, circulating information through sympathetic newsletters and websites. Getting rid of fake news and bullshit is fine for the dominant military approach but would do little to make audiences more aware of nonviolent options.

Voting is governments’ preferred method of citizen involvement in politics. Besides voting, there are numerous methods that enable citizens to participate in the decisions affecting their lives, such as initiatives and referendums. A method I find appealing is citizens juries, in which randomly selected citizens hear evidence and arguments about a contentious community issue, deliberate about it and make a recommendation.

Citizens panel, Riga

However, alternatives to representative government have hardly any profile in the media. There is massive coverage of politicians, including their campaigning, policies, foibles and infighting, but almost none about participatory alternatives to the system in which elections and politicians are dominant. This means that campaigners for such alternatives need dedicated sources of information to find out about research and action, and to maintain their commitment.

Many social movements that are today considered progressive have struggled in the face of hostile media environments. Ball’s concerns about the rise of bullshit and the problems in gaining access to information are warranted. But for those seeking to challenge perspectives based on massive money, power and ideology, it has never been easy.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

When you’re in the news


Being the subject of news coverage can be both exciting and disturbing.

Have you ever been in the news? If you’re a politician, sports star or celebrity, of course you have, but for others it can be a rare experience. What does it feel like?

            There is a vast amount of writing and research about the news. However, most of the research is from the point of view of either journalists or audiences. Surprisingly, few have bothered to interview so-called “ordinary people” appearing in the news. Ruth Palmer, in her new book Becoming the news: how ordinary people respond to the media spotlight,has addressed this omission. Her findings are fascinating.

            My own experience is not typical. For decades I have regularly spoken with journalists, and I’ve written quite a few articles and letters to the editor published in newspapers. However, I do remember one of the first times I was on television. A television crew came to a friend’s house and I was interviewed on camera for half an hour. When the programme was broadcast, less than half a minute of the interview was used. That was when I concluded that television is the most manipulative of the mass media.

            Palmer is now a professor of communications at IE University in Spain. In doing her PhD at Columbia University, she set out to study the experiences of people in the US who had been in news stories, usually without any initiative on their part, and this research became the basis for Becoming the News.

After the famous “miracle on the Hudson,” when a pilot landed a damaged passenger plane on the Hudson River with no loss of life, journalists sought the views of survivors. Palmer interviewed one of them, “Albert” (a pseudonym). Also among the 83 people she interviewed in 2009-2011 were “Deanne,” who witnessed an attempted suicide and was approached for comment, and “Alegra,” who miscarried due to a rare syndrome and agreed to speak to the media about it.

Miracle on the Hudson

            There were a variety of reasons why Palmer’s interviewees had encounters with the media. What the interviewees had in common was the novel experience of having their words or images conveyed to a wide public in a story written by someone else — a journalist.

“Subjects imagined that those large audiences not only saw the coverage but also believed it. Based on their subsequent interactions with people who had seen them in the news, this usually proved to be true. This is the final factor that defines news subjecthood: being represented by a journalist in a mainstream news product means being represented in a product that makes authoritative truth claims.” (p. 8)

The interview

In many cases, people make a voluntary choice to be in the news. A journalist rings and asks for comments on an issue. It’s possible to say no, but many subjects agree, for a variety of reasons. Some want to inform the public about an issue, like Alegra who wanted to warn other mothers. Some seek publicity for their business or cause.

            Some people have just experienced something dramatic, like a plane crash or being shot in the street. Palmer calls the event leading to journalists being interested a “trigger.” If you’ve just been collateral damage in a shooting incident, or witnessed someone trying to kill themselves, you could be traumatised. It’s not an ideal time to be talking to a journalist, but even so many people agree: they are witnesses and are willing to give their point of view.

            Journalists are hardly neutral in this process. They want a story. They learn how to encourage subjects to agree to comment and how to get them talking. In this sort of encounter, the journalist is highly skilled and experienced whereas the subject is unprepared and sometimes traumatised. Some journalists exploit people’s natural inclination to respond to questions.

            In general, people agree to be interviewed if they think they will benefit more than they will be harmed. Some don’t want their stories told, especially if they have something to hide.

            In my own experience, most journalists are straightforward in their dealings and competent in doing their jobs. For example, they ring me to comment about whistleblowing or plagiarism or some other topic about which I’ve written. My situation is different from that of the “ordinary people” Palmer writes about; I’ve never been approached after witnessing a crime or being in an accident.

The story

Palmer’s findings about the accuracy of stories are especially interesting. First consider the point of view of journalists and editors: they put a premium on factual accuracy. Some high-prestige media, like the New York Times, employ fact-checkers to ensure accuracy in stories.

            However, Palmer found that most subjects were not too worried about factual errors, such as giving the wrong street or even misspelling their names. They were far more disturbed by the general impression given by the story, especially when it was different from what, based on an interview, they had anticipated.

            For an ordinary person to be featured in the news means being singled out as special: in most cases, it adds to the person’s status. This occurs despite the news media having a low reputation generally. Many subjects were thrilled by the stories. They thought the journalists had done a good job, and had given them greater visibility than they could have achieved otherwise.

            For subjects who wanted to promote a business or a cause, media coverage provided more effective advertising and legitimation than alternatives. Stories were especially credible because they were written by someone else, a journalist.

            Subjects reported that when family members and friends saw their name in the newspaper, many of them bought copies and sent congratulations. In quite a few cases, this response seemed independent of what the story said. Being in the news was enough to be seen as an accomplishment.

            For a small minority, though, news coverage was a disaster. This was mainly when the story was about something disreputable, such as a crime, or simply cast them in a bad light. A university student was quoted out of context in a way that made her look bad, and as a result received abusive comments from peers and strangers alike.

            Many subjects found it strange, indeed unnerving, to see how they were portrayed in the news. It is difficult enough for most people to appreciate how others see them. News coverage provides one avenue.

            The strangeness arises from a contrast of perspectives. Subjects knew about their own lives, of course. Then a sliver of their life is interpreted by someone else, a journalist, and presented to the world, so readers would assume that that is what they are like. Subjects could examine the coverage and contrast it with their own self-perception. Added to this was the knowledge that many other people, people who didn’t know them otherwise, were forming their opinions of them based on this particular portrayal.

            With time and experience, people can get used to media coverage of themselves. Palmer’s subjects, though, were newcomers to the experience.

The consequences

Journalists, according to Palmer, evaluate their reporting mainly in terms of accuracy and ethical process. Subjects, while deeming these facets important, were much more concerned with the overall orientation of the coverage and with its impact on audiences. These are aspects given less attention in US media coverage. If a journalist had to worry about the impact of coverage on the life of an interviewee, this could lead to a type of self-censorship.

            Long after journalists have moved on to other stories, subjects may be coping with the impact of being in the news. This is exacerbated by the indefinite online availability of stories. Pre-Internet, media coverage would come and go, with impacts being localised in time and space. With online stories, the coverage can have a long-term impact via search engines.

            One of Palmer’s subjects, “Rich,” had been arrested for having kidnapped a politician’s wife, a story given local media coverage. Later, he was released because he had nothing to do with the kidnapping. However, his exoneration was not newsworthy. His employer believed Rich was innocent but fired him anyway, because clients might find the damaging media stories online. Three years later, Palmer reports, Rich was still unemployed.

            Rich’s disastrous experience with media coverage highlights something relevant to most of Palmer’s subjects: they realised that journalists and editors had far more power than they did. In effect, they were at the mercy of journalists, who could decide how to frame stories, enhancing or damaging their reputations.

            Journalists have a lot of power because their stories can have a wide and long-lasting impact. Furthermore, this power is mostly unaccountable: in the face of unwelcome coverage, the ordinary person has little recourse aside from expensive services to manage online reputations. That journalists have a lot of power does not mesh easily with journalists’ own self-image. They are pressured to produce ever more stories with fewer resources. If anything, they see themselves as courageous champions of the underdog, holding the spotlight to the wrongdoings of powerholders, in the tradition of what is called the fourth estate. With this self-image, it is easy to forget that media coverage can have drastic impacts on subjects of the coverage and that their relationship with those subjects is quite unequal.

Insights about the news

Based on her interviews and other research, Palmer offers a set of lessons for journalists and subjects. To these I would add a few suggestions for consumers of the news, reading about someone who is portrayed as, for example, a hero, an innovator, a victim or a crook.

            It’s useful to remember that media portrayals can, at best, capture only one aspect of a person’s life. So try not to assume that coverage defines a person. This is especially important when the treatment is negative. This is a warning not to engage in social media mobbing without full information.

            In one instance in which I came under attack in a newspaper, there were numerous hostile social media comments. I received a number of hostile emails as well as favourable ones. Most disturbingly, I received just one request for more information. The lesson is that if you see negative coverage about someone and don’t know them, then refrain from joining in an attack; instead, ask them for their side of the story. Or ask someone else who might have independent information.

            If a friend of yours is in the media, you might congratulate them, assuming the coverage is positive. You might also take extra care and talk to them about the issues involved.

            On quite a few occasions, acquaintances have said to me, “I heard you on the radio.” Sometimes, not remembering the interview, I say, “What was I talking about?” Usually they can’t remember. This experience accords with Palmer’s observation that media coverage conveys status independently of the content of the coverage. So when you hear someone you know on the radio, you might like to strike up a conversation about the topic. You might learn something extra. But be careful: they might be sick of the topic and want to talk about anything else.

            There’s an old saying in media studies: “Newspapers don’t tell people what to think; they do tell people what to think about.” Keep this in mind when you respond to media stories and try, at least occasionally, to explore what wasn’t in the news.

Ruth Palmer

            Here’s the “deep story” that Palmer’s subjects felt was true about the mass media:

“The news media is extremely powerful — much, much more powerful than most citizens. Journalists are primarily motivated by profit and status, rather than public service. And yet, outrageously, journalists claim the mantle of public defender. Thus hypocrisy and the potential for abuse define the news media’s relationship to the public.” (p. 214)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Snowflake journalists

Some Australian media outlets have been warning that university students are unduly protected from disturbing ideas. But are these same media outlets actually the ones that can’t handle disturbing ideas?

For years, I’ve been seeing stories in The Australian and elsewhere about problems in universities associated with political correctness (PC). The stories tell of students who demand to be warned about disturbing material in their classes, for example discussions of rape in a class on English literature. The students demand “trigger warnings” so they can avoid or prepare for potentially disturbing content. Detractors call them “snowflake students”: they are so delicate that, like a snowflake, they dissolve at exposure to anything slightly warm.

Former Labor Party leader Mark Latham, for example, referred to “the snowflake safe-space culture of Australian universities.”


Richard King

Richard King, the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation, reviewed Claire Fox’s book I Find that Offensive. King says that the principal target of Fox’s book “is ‘the snowflake generation’, which is to say the current crop of students, especially student activists, who keep up a constant, cloying demand for their own and others’ supervision. ‘Safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘microaggressions’ are all symptoms of this trend.”

I treat these sorts of stories with a fair bit of scepticism. Sure, there are some incidents of over-the-top trigger warnings and demands for excessive protection. But are these incidents representative of what’s happening more generally?

Before accepting that this is a major problem, I want to see a proper study. A social scientist might pick a random selection of universities and classes, then interview students and teachers to find out whether trigger warnings are used, whether class discussions have been censored or inhibited, and so forth. I’ve never heard of any such study.

What remains is anecdote. Media stories are most likely to be about what is unusual and shocking. “Dog bites man” is not newsworthy but “man bites dog” might get a run.

Most of the Australian media stories about trigger warnings and snowflake students are about what’s happening in the US, with the suggestion that Australian students are succumbing to this dire malady of over-sensitivity.


Trigger warnings: Australian movie and video game classifications

My experience

There is a case for trigger warnings. Nevertheless, in thirty years of undergraduate teaching, I never saw any need for them — except when I asked students to use them.

For one assignment in my class “Media, war and peace,” students formed small groups to design an activity for the rest of the class. The activity had to address a concept or theory relating to war or peace, violence or nonviolence. Quite a few student groups chose the more gruesome topics of assassination, torture or genocide, and some of them showed graphic pictures of torture and genocidal killings.

Never did a single student complain about seeing images of torture and killing. Nevertheless, I eventually decided to request that the student groups provide warnings that some images might be disturbing. Thereafter, when groups provided warnings, no students ever excused themselves from the class. I was watching to see their reactions and never noticed anyone looking away.

This is just one teacher’s experience and can’t prove anything general. It seems to show that some Australian students appear pretty tough when it comes to seeing images of violence. Perhaps they have been desensitised by watching news coverage of wars and terrorist attacks.

However, appearances can be deceptive. My colleague Ika Willis pointed out to me that students may hide their distress, and that few would ever complain even if they were distressed. So how would I know whether any of my students were trauma survivors and were adversely affected? Probably I wouldn’t. That is an example of why making generalisations about trigger warnings based on limited evidence is unwise.

A journalist attends classes – covertly

On 8 August 2018, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a front-page story attacking three academics at Sydney University for what they had said in their classes. The journalist, Chris Harris, wrote about what he had done this way: “The Daily Telegraph visited top government-funded universities in Sydney for a first-hand look at campus life …” This was a euphemistic way of saying that he attended several classes without informing the teachers that he was attending as a journalist, and covertly recorded lectures without permission. Only in a smallish tutorial class, in which the tutor knows all the students, would an uninvited visitor be conspicuous.


Chris Harris

Harris then wrote an expose, quoting supposedly outrageous statements made by three teachers. This was a typical example of a beat-up, namely a story based on trivial matters that are blown out of proportion. Just imagine: a teacher says something that, if taken out of context, can be held up to ridicule. Many teachers would be vulnerable to this sort of scandal-mongering.

One issue here is the ethics of covertly attending classes and then writing a story based on statements taken out of context. Suppose an academic covertly went into media newsrooms, recorded conversations and wrote a paper based on comments taken out of context. This would be a gross violation of research ethics and scholarly conventions. To collect information by visiting a newsroom would require approval from a university research ethics committee. Good scholarly practice would involve sending a draft of interview notes or the draft of a paper to those quoted. In a paper submitted for publication, the expectation would be that quotes fairly represent the issues addressed.


A typical Daily Telegraph front page

Where are the snowflake students?

So when Harris attended classes at universities in Sydney, did he discover lots of snowflake students who demanded to be protected by trigger warnings? He didn’t say, but it is clear that at least two individuals were highly offended: a journalist and an editor! They thought the classroom comments by a few academics were scandalous.

In a story by Rebecca Urban in The Australian following up the Telegraph expose, Fiona Martin’s passing comment about a cartoon by Bill Leak comes in for special attention. According to this story, “The Australian’s editor-in-chief Paul Whittaker described the comment as ‘appalling’ and ‘deeply disrespectful’.”


Paul Whittaker

So apparently News Corp journalists and editors are the real snowflakes, not being able to tolerate a few passing comments by academics that weren’t even intended for them or indeed for anyone outside the classroom. Or perhaps these journalists and editors are outraged on behalf of their readership, who they consider should be alerted to the dangerous and foolish comments being made in university classrooms.

Where in this process did the call for students to be tough and be exposed to vigorous discussion suddenly dissolve?

The contradiction is shown starkly in a 10 August letter to the editor of The Australian by Andrew Weeks. The letter was given the title “Bill Leak’s legacy is his courage in defending the right to free speech”. Weeks begins his letter by saying “I am unsure what is most disturbing about the abuse of sadly departed cartoonist Bill Leak by Fiona Martin.” After canvassing a couple of possibilities, he says “Perhaps it is the fact that Sydney University has supported its staffer, offering lip service in support of freedom of speech when that is exactly what is being endangered by the intolerance characteristic of so many university academics.”

The logic seems to be that freedom of speech of Bill Leak (or those like him) is endangered by an academic’s critical comment in a classroom, and that a university administration should not support academics who make adverse comments about Leak.


Bill Leak

Again it might be asked, what happened to the concern about the snowflake generation? The main snowflakes are, apparently, a journalist, an editor and some readers. Perhaps it would be wise in future for journalists to avoid visiting university classrooms so that they and their readers will not be disturbed by the strong views being expressed.

Final remarks

Universities do have serious problems, including a heavy reliance on casual teaching staff and lack of support for international students, both due to lack of money. More students report problems with anxiety and depression. There is also the fundamental issue of the purpose of higher education, which should not be reduced to job preparation. Instead of addressing these issues, News Corp newspapers seem more interested in the alleged danger, apparently most virulent in humanities disciplines, of political correctness.

My focus here is on an apparent contradiction or discrepancy in treatments of PC and “snowflake students” in The Australian and the Daily Telegraph. While decrying the rise of the so-called snowflake generation, journalists and editors seemed more upset than most students by comments made in university classrooms.

One other point is worth mentioning. If you want to inhibit vigorous classroom discussions of contentious issues, there’s no better way than spying on these discussions with the aim of exposing them for public condemnation. This suggests the value of a different sort of trigger warning: “There’s a journalist in the classroom!”

Further reading (mass media)

Josh Glancy, “Rise of the snowflake generation,” The Australian, 8-9 September 2018, pp. 15, 19.

Christopher Harris, “Degrees of hilarity” and “Bizarre rants of a class clown,” Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2018, pp. 4-5.

Amanda Hess, “How ‘snowflake’ became America’s inescapable tough-guy taunt,” New York Times Magazine, 13 June 2017.

Richard King, “Fiery blast aimed at ‘snowflake generation’,” The Australian, 1 April 2017, Review p. 22.

Mark Latham, “The parties are over,” Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2018, p. 13.

Bill Leak, “Suck it up, snowflakes,” The Australian, 11 March 2017, p. 15.

Rebecca Urban, “Uni backs staffer on secret suicide advice,” The Australian, 9 August 2018, p. 7; (another version) “University of Sydney stands by media lecturer following Bill Leak attack,” The Australian, 8 August 2018, online.

Further reading (scholarly)

Sigal R. Ben-Porath, Free Speech on Campus (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Emily J. M. Knox (ed.), Trigger Warnings: History, Theory, Context (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

Acknowledgements
Thanks to several colleagues for valuable discussions and to Tonya Agostini, Xiaoping Gao, Lynn Sheridan and Ika Willis for comments on a draft of this post. Chris Harris and Paul Whittaker did not respond to invitations to comment.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

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.

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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.