Reflections on my Dissertation Part 4: We’ve seen Clickbait Before

This one will be quite short.  Whenever I get frustrated at a piece of “news” that is high on personal attacks and short on facts, I remember that we’ve seen this stuff before.

Many right now in media have been using pre-World War II as a model for the considerable unrest occurring in the world right now — at least from a media point of view.

I think a better model is post-War of 1812 North America. Canada was caught between the Scylla of UK colonialism and Charbydis of US expansionism in terms of its media coverage — something I discuss in a previous reflection — and a large number of American loyalists became the mainstay of Canadian culture by using new technologies like pulp paper and the rotary press to develop platforms for their news. One of the main differences between then and now, however, was the near reliance of these news business on government printing in order to stay alive. But sometimes there are “special interest stories” that resemble much of what we might see on Gawker or Buzzfeed:

On friday evening last some of our official sprigs and hopeful upstarts sallied forth to make a display of their activity; which they did by making depredations upon the property of our peacable citizens. Mr. James Taylor, Merchant, had a quantity of salt barrels lying piled up in his house, where they their ingenuity by tumbling them down where some of them were broken by the fall — they proceeding from thence to pull down diverse signs, one of their member, a young gentleman by the name of Craig (who we learn was in the main well behaved) a nephew of the Archdeacon, who had clambered up for the purpose, fell from his station and injured himself so much that he died on Tuesday evening. We understand that the companions all ran away and left him except William Campbell Esq., clerk of Assize for the district. We have not learned their names but we understand that Robert Hamilton, a student of law, and one of the Archdeacon’s sons, were of the party.

What a pity our gents would not learn to behave better. Had these depredations been committed by the boys in our office there would be little doubt but they would soon have found safe lodging within the strong walls of the brick house.

We understand that young Craig stated that he had been drawn into the scrape by persuasion, and that he desired all the youth of the town to take warning by him and avoid such company.

It’s unclear to what degree poor Craig’s injuries could have been helped by modern medicine, but what strikes me about this passage is the very informal and personal style of the author. There’s a clear social-justice bent to the language and the story is very much intended to act as a warning to all those other young hoodlums who would get themselves into such a mess. By changing the language, this could easily become a Tumblr post.

The newspaper that ran this article, by the way, was the Colonial Advocate (cited in W.H Kesterton’s A History of Journalism in Canada) — the owner of the paper was the leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion, First Mayor of Toronto and First President of a declared “Republic of Canada” in 1837 five years after this article was written.  He was also the grandfather of William Lyon Mackenzie King – a future Prime Minister of Canada.

So, if the historical pattern follows, the concern that we should worry about most is not a build-up of fascism, but instead a divided public on the road to civil war.  Canada’s response was the response of a nation too small and poor to get into a big fight: a restructuring of government that followed Durham’s famous report on responsible government for Canada. Unfortunately, the differences between the more progressive and expansionist Yankees and the colonialists slave-owners to the south were not as reconcilable. One hopes that common ground can build to prevent such a catastrophe as a big war.

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Reflections on my Dissertation Part 3 – What Do We Know We Know About Twitter?

As a long-time Twitter user, discussing what Twitter does or does not mean to public policy in Canada was surprisingly the hardest thing to do. The main challenge is that there is plenty about what we think we know about Twitter, but really very little we can say we know for sure. Here are some things we do know for sure.

“Ordinary” People Create News on Twitter

Content creation has long been a privilege of a certain class. This class was not always politically powerful. For instance, ee cummings was a very successful poet, but had very little influence in an institutional sense. However, they did have a sense of the institutions that matter most to political life. For instance, Joseph Howe had to be keenly aware of the rules of engagement when he criticised the politicians of his day. He also needed some serious political resources to avoid being sent to prison when he eventually overstepped.

The Joseph Howes of our day are much less attuned to the institutions that potentially affect them. First of all, the critic and the criticized may be many miles away and live under different rules, although I eventually show that with some exceptions, we can expect a Twitter policy conversation about Canada to be primarily by Canadians, and particular Canadians in regions that are most affected by the policy. International actors tend to engage in parallel conversation about Canadian policy instead.

Twitter is a “Thin” Engagement Tool

In social network theory, there is a distinction between “strong” and “weak” ties.  Strong ties are those that are long lasting and we measure them by something called “triad closure” which basically means that the friends of your friends are also your friends. “Weak” ties are more fleeting but they are important for the spreading of information (or conversely, contagious diseases) across long distances. If you have been following this series, you may notice the connection to Harold Innis.

For Twitter there is a bit of a difference, however.  I think the main difference is that in an online social network, there is always an “invisible friend” that confounds our traditional understanding of “weak” and “strong.” That invisible friend is Twitter itself.  This would include the Twitter interface, algorithms for recommending followers, “trending topics” and any other feature of the site that would connect one user to another. I call this “thin” engagement, using the language of some theorists.

While we need more research on this idea, I suggest that the “thin” elements of Twitter include a tendency to react to our experience of receiving information more than the development of a relationship. The best example I can offer of this is what happens when a celebrity’s name appears in Twitter’s trending topics. A common reaction (especially after 2016) is to fear that the celebrity has passed away, shaping what might be a response that may in turn result in a discussion. Others have argued that a tool like Twitter permits a sense of parrhesia — the ability to speak frankly about topics — so to emit a truth that otherwise could not be done in person. I argue that this parrhesia perspective is not parrhesia about society, but parrhesia about the information we experience while on these tools. For this reason, it’s not particularly helpful a source for establishing priorities for policy.

Twitter is Parasocial

Twitter may offer a thin engagement experience, but that does not mean it is not influenced by power structures. One element of its power is its parasociality. Parasociality refers to the way people experience an interaction as being reciprocal (ie. both parties feel the same about a conversation) when in fact it may not be. A non-online example is the experience of being a fan in a stadium watching a football game. When your team gets a touchdown, it feels as if you had a role in making that happen merely by cheering on your team. You get a sense of victory even though you have no business thinking you are in any way like the athletes on the field.

In my view, Twitter has this stadium-like quality that undermines the role that ordinary citizens can play in policy-making. If anything, like a Dennis Rodman, Sean Avery, John MacEnroe, Muhammed Ali or Chael Sonnen the athletes can revel in their negative press gaining notoriety as a heel in the sport, increasing their earning-power. Donald Trump appears to have used a similar approach on Twitter to his benefit as well.

These are some things I feel I have provided some (leading, if not conclusive) evidence for in my dissertation. In the next reflection, I am going to look at what I used as a method and then I will follow with some case studies.

Reflection on my Thesis Part Two: Agenda Setting

Agenda setting is confusing in the policy literature, and particularly so because technology can make us feel so close to the decision-making process. In a layperson’s sense of the term, agenda setting is about raising issues for governments to solve. Maybe someone notices that a particular crosswalk appears unsafe for pedestrians.  She calls the authorities and lets them know about it. If that doesn’t emit a response, then she goes to media. And if not media, then maybe she can drum up some concern on social media by creating a hashtag and posting some videos of dramatic close calls. That attention, we are to believe, tells politicians that they risk not winning the next election if they do not address the issue.

In policy theory, however, agenda setting is very different. Policy agenda setting is about what issues go on the agenda at an executive board meeting. Moreover, it implies something about the scope of those issues and their relative importance from the government perspective.

For example, dealing with societal problems one issue at a time creates problems of its own. Decisions on what constitutes an unsafe crosswalk and when they should be upgraded or replaced may be more relevant to government than any one crosswalk. Except this plan requires an understanding of the problem from a wide range of perspectives. Will it increase taxes? Who will we buy the new equipment from? Who will install the new systems? Will they obstruct traffic and does that matter if it saves lives? Then there will political arguments. “This city is involved in a war on cars” says a community group concerned about traffic. “People should feel safe in their communities without cars driving through them all the time.”  These groups may be determined to thwart policy no matter what, or just wanting to ensure that their voices are heard. And so on.

In short, policy agenda setting is a messy thing, potentially involving near limitless political conflict, economic & scientific evaluation of evidence, stakeholder input and pressure to both expand and contain the scope of the issue at hand. Take, for example, the role of the tragic deaths of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons in the bringing about of legislation to prevent cyberbullying in Canada. The average Canadian will suggest that public outrage, facilitated through Twitter and Facebook were the reasons why the government had to respond to the cyberbullying issue. In reality, the federal ‘response’ was already decided a decade before these incidents during a European convention on Cybercrime in Budapest, Hungary. You see, to capture someone on the Internet sometimes or often requires international cooperation, which in turn requires agreements about the terms upon which such information can be exchanged — for example, how quickly police can and should respond to such information requests.

But wait — you may say — that is more about cyber-CRIME like international fraud schemes or child pornography rings. That goes way beyond the scope of the real issue, which is the mistreatment of young people by cyberbullies. Of course it does.  The point is that “setting the agenda” may have little or anything to do with what people get outraged by. In this case, the solution had much more to do with the giving power for police to do their jobs than the tragedy of the victims, other than to suggest that such an increase in police power would prevent cyberbullying.

On the other hand, to say the Twitter outrage played no role in agenda setting is not quite true either. In fact, social media was part of the reason the policy stalled in the early days as an anonymous privacy advocate posted court proceedings for then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews divorce proceedings. The public embarrassment demonstrated the dangers of privacy from Toews “you are with us, or with the child pornographers” perspective and the Conservative government backed down from the policy.  When nearly identical legislation passed after the Todd and Parsons tragedies, it was much less viable to argue the privacy line. Opponents could only argue that the government was passing a “Trojan Horse” law, promising to save young girls from heinous cyberbullies while undermining the privacy of ordinary citizens.

360 No Scope

In sum, I think agendas are determined largely ad hoc. There are many theories about the details of the ad hoc-ness of agenda setting, but largely people think about the issues and come up with solutions behind closed doors. Then they try to get them on the agenda in any way they can. Sometimes that means being quietly about it; sometimes reducing the scope and implementing piecemeal; sometimes finding a circumstance to demonstrate a broader policy principle; and sometimes by using an event as a window of opportunity to make a decision. I find that Twitter outrage plays a very limited role in policy development right now. In some ways, it may make one time dramatic displays of public resistance to seem rather mundane and ordinary. In much the same way that developing your own blog was seen as innovative and new in the turn of the millennium and now is boring; so goes the use of attention as an agenda setting device.  It’s not so special when anyone can make something go viral. More importantly, it’s not threatening to those in power. For those in a Democracy, we must question whether such actions increases or reduces the power of the people in the long run.

Reflections on my PhD work — Part One Harold Innis

I have been studying Twitter for the past four years, following major controversies including Idle No More, Gamergate, Trump’s election campaign, Black Lives Matter and so on. Not all are mentioned in my dissertation, but I’ve been following them nonetheless. I want to know what online people think is important and how this connects (or does not connect) to what the state thinks. Can we speak about online and offline people as if they are two different things? If so, what are the differences?

Other scholars have thought about this question as well, usually under the umbrella term “agenda setting,” although philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and political economists like Harold Innis have considered it from the perspective of political discourse and empire respectively. Innis is probably the best start, because he is Canadian and my dissertation is about agenda setting in Canada.

Harold Innis

As a country wedged culturally and politically between Europe and the United States, Canada is a country that has historically been “cultured upon” more than it has influenced the global culture. Innis argues that this reality is first the result of Canada’s economy being historically relegated to staple goods (furs, fisheries, lumber etc.) for larger powers in France, the UK and the United States. More recently, the oil and gas  and other mining industries have been the major influences on Canada’s economy. In the digital age, one might also see Canada’s service sector as an extension of the staple thesis.

Innis’s second consideration about Canada’s “cultured upon” status is his theory of communication bias too often mistakenly seen as merely a precursor to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about “hot” and “cold” media. The difference between McLuhan and Innis is that McLuhan is much more interested in the role of media in creating a global society. Innis is much more pragmatic — he argues that an empire must be able to communicate over time and space to survive.  That is, an empire must have sufficient political influence over geographic space (very important for Canada, a country with plenty of geography) and  a set of common or at least compatible identities that “stick” for a long period of time. Different media are biased towards one or the other of these necessary empire-sustaining ingredients. For example, a book is much more durable than a newspaper and thus has a time bias. People are much more likely to have read Pride and Prejudice than a newspaper from the early 19th century. This means that Pride and Prejudice has achieved its goal of extending the culture and values of the Anglo-Saxon empire to Canadians 200 years later. For example, the value of marrying for love rather than convenience (a major theme in the book) has much more resonance for modern Canadian society than does the use of marriage for power relations more common in Renaissance Italy.

On the other hand, why is it that of the 30 highest grossing films in Japan, only 9 were originally written in Japanese? Examining 19th Century Canada, Innis noticed the role of pulp paper and the invention of the rotary press making it much easier for the United State to convince Canadians to buy American products. The power of radio, television and now digital media to promote and distribute goods across long-distances shows the power of space-biased media. Twitter and Facebook exemplify space-biased media, but with one caveat: Innis has also argued that oral communication has an important role in time-bias, exemplified by the major influence of Socratic philosophy and Judeo-Christian religions. Is it possible that social media sustains both time and space bias and defies Innis’s theory?

Time and Space?

What I discovered is that issues may have continuity online when social groups do not. What this means is that ideas can go viral on the one hand, but the deepness of the idea does not necessarily carry across time periods. When I look at social network graphs, it is as if I am seeing a large group of people yelling comments at their television, except the comments remain even though minds have changed. Innis’s work definitely applies generally to social media, but there seems to be something incomplete about the analysis. What does it mean when ideas that have sudden but fleeting relevance to society are etched in digital stone for people to view 10, 20 or 30 years later? How will historians view this information? How will we use (or not use) these ideas to identify what matters to our nations? How will this kind of data influence the way we allocate resources for better or worse?

In the next installment, I will spend more time looking at what “agenda setting” is and what it means to media, society, and the state.

 

I’ve been plagiarized! It’s an Outrage!

As I’ve quietly tried to ignore the GOP convention, a major controversy had developed based on the claim that Melania Trump had plagiarized her speech from Michelle Obama.

Mashable ran Trump’s speech through Turnitin and found that the speech was as much as 47% non-unique.  Some clever person did a little hunt for the first result and found that the original genius writer was no one other than yours truly.

Here’s my original phrasing:

Your word is your bond. You do what you say you are going to do and it matters to you lots when projects do not come through they way they should.

Here’s Michelle Obama’s wording:

You work hard for what you want in life. Your word is your bond and you do what you say.

And Melania’s wording:

You work hard for what you want in life. Your word is your bond and you do what you say you are going to do.

Almost exact wording makes you think there is a very serious problem, hunh?  As much of an honor as it is to be plagiarized by a current and potentially future first lady, I think it’s fair to say that this is a pretty common definition for integrity which is political jargon for “please vote for me.” The Wall Street Journal made this point which is how I eventually found out about all this as did this clever Ars Technica user.

The similarities between the two speeches as a whole do seem a little like laziness to me on the part of Melania’s speech writer. Of course, I do not approve of plagiarism and in academic papers I strongly advise against even blinking in that direction.  On the other hand, I would not use Turnitin on a wedding speech and take the results seriously either.

At least I had an excuse to write a blog post as I hadn’t in over a year! I hope all the readers of periodic nothingness are having a great summer!

Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

How social media makes things worse.

A little ways back, I decided that I would try my best to fight misinformation on the Internet. I just found too many people who I respected just off-handedly sharing one piece of information or the other with a tag line “so true” when in fact, it had very little truth about it.

Often, it puts me in a very difficult position. Let me provide an example. Consider this article by Matthew Yglesias from vox.com. In it, he decries “white on white” violence as a retort to Joe Klein’s assertion in Time that “Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks.” Looking at the same statistics Yglesias found that 80% of white victims are murdered by other whites, and felt that this was an ideal time to point out how biased we are when we look at crime statistics.

Racial bias is an empirical fact, as is racism. But unfortunately, Yglesias’s claim that “white on white crime” is a problem is not a fact.

When you look at a statistic and want to decide whether it’s a problem or not, you need to compare that statistic to what you would reasonably expect given the context. For example, if you wanted to see if a coin was biased towards “heads,” you might flip the coin 10,000 times and see what happens. You would expect a 50-50 outcome over time. If the coin showed 80% heads, that’s strong evidence that the coin is unfair.

The mistake Yglesias makes is in assuming an expected value of 50%, which is not the case for race in the United States. If a group of future murderers (any race) were tracked, we would expect the proportion of white victims would be close to the proportion of white people in the population. For the United States, that expected value would be about 72%. I won’t go into whether an 80% result is statistically significant or not. In general, a good amount of social behavior is homophilous, meaning that like tends to want to hang around with like. While it is not a problem if people marry inter-racially, it turns out that, in general, people marry someone of their own race. Given that many murders happen at home, we would expect some level of homophily in the result. This could be because of racism, preferences or both, (likely both), but in the end this white-on-white crime scenario is not so far from the expected value that it represents a serious social problem.

On the other hand, given that the population of black people in the US is 13% and black on black crime is 90%, this is very strong evidence that black people are disproportionately killing other black people. If we were to assume that the white-on-white crime scenario was caused by generic homophily, then this suggests an extreme case that might have other causes beyond simple homophily.

The problem, of course, is that a radical right-wing racist interpretation of these statistics could be that Black people are inherently dangerous because they are black. It is possible, even by pointing out the faulty statistical interpretation by the vox article that I could be tacitly supporting these racists.

It is not as if others like Tim Wise haven’t already covered these interpretations in great detail all ready. On the other hand, it would be naive to think that anyone reading the Internet is going to go through the data, or even bother to read the entirety of Wise’s take-down of the extreme right-wing view.

On the other hand, the 90% black on black violent crime is about as solid evidence as you can get that institutions in the United States are heavily stacked against black people. It’s not just that, but also that rather than face the reality of this dire inequality, we’d rather share stupid, half-factual memes than work to resolve the problem. It is a difficult and controversial question to decide whether the benefits of sharing the statistics because it could result in judiciously increased support for African Americans would be outweighed by the use of such a statistic by racists to support their racist ideas. We also would have to consider the impact of sharing the statistic on the level of trust African Americans would have for their political institutions.

But, when we share something with a “so true” what is it that we actually mean by this? Well, I think it has something to do with what is symbolically true, rather than empirically true. For example, if you ask someone “do you believe in equality?” They’ll probably say “yes, absolutely!” But then you can ask them: “great – then how should be divide this pie that i baked?”

Deborah Stone covers this topic in detail in her amazing book Policy Paradox – The Art of Political Decision Making. Under highly politicized circumstances, dividing a pie is no easy task. You could say “all equal” but that fails to take into account that someone paid for all the ingredients and did all the work to make the pie. If they made the pie, maybe they should be able to decide how it gets divided. What if someone is gluten intolerant and can’t eat the pie? Do they get none, or should they be given the right to sell the pie to others in order to buy some cake, but the others have nothing but pie to offer. So maybe our pie maker should forget about making the pie and just give the ingredient supplies to the others. But there’s no guarantee that the others have the skills and abilities to make pie and cake on their own…

There is, of course, no correct answer here, and at the end of the day, someone is going to be upset. The best we can do, is provide reliable and trustworthy information to the group to show that we’ve done our best to try and be as fair as possible given all other alternatives currently available to us. But there is power inherent in what “problems” we decide to focus on and how they are framed (eg. maybe this is a pie productivity issue rather than an equality issue).

But to not frame the problems would create even worse outcomes. Left to our own devices, we are more likely to find ourselves in the clutches of tyrants, not less.

But there is one outcome worse than doing nothing: that is spreading incomplete or untrustworthy information. If we continue down the road of “gotcha” talking points, the end result will be polarisation and conflict. The only thing worse than an unequal distribution of pie is a mass war over the pie – that will only result in people getting hurt and the pie likely being destroyed.

In short, it behooves us to think closely about the information we share and how we present it. Some will say “but then you just have tone policing.” Well, no. If you only have a symbolic argument and you state it in ways that denigrate others, I think it’s quite justified to ask the person to calm it down. If the tone of an argument is a barrier to understanding, in particular because it gets in the ways of understanding the intricacies of the issue, then yes tones should be policed. Although perhaps time and place are considerations. There is a reason I have left this topic until well after the Ferguson protests, for instance.