Russia used Facebook to Try to Influence the 2016 Election

New reports are surfacing claiming that Russia was behind an effort to influence the 2016 Presidential election. Facebook itself is releasing information suggesting that it carried approximately $100,000 of advertising that was “connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies.” Using fake Facebook accounts, highly-targeted ads pushed traffic to websites designed to promote a narrative that was pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton.

Zuckerberg had previously claimed that social media manipulations were not responsible for the Trump victory, but these new revelations may reopen that debate. In response, some lawmakers are calling for regulations that would make political ad buys on social media more transparent.

Twitter has also indicated that it will look into Russian meddling that may have targeted their platform.

 

The “many sides” of the Moral Equivalence Fallacy

When engaging in political debates it is quite common these days for one side to attempt to shut down an argument by arguing that the opposing view is creating a moral equivalence when one does not exist. It goes something like this: X is terrible, but Y is also terrible. So for you to support Y while criticizing X makes you a hypocrite and your critique of X invalid.

Need a practical example? The founder of PETA is well known for her statement shown below. Taken to it’s logical conclusion, a rat deserves just as much protection as a human child because they are morally equivalent.

Now consider a recent example. The widely-reported violence in Charlottesville this past weekend resulted when protestors and anti-protestors clashed in the streets. This was followed by President Trump saying,

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

The phrase, “on many sides” drew harsh criticism for implying that the “hatred, bigotry and violence” was not limited to those protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. While extremists on the right (e.g. white supremacists) were met by extremists on the left (e.g. antifa), few would argue that there is a moral equivalence to their motives and tactics.

Here’s another example. The recent escalation of rhetoric between President Trump and North Korea led some reporters and pundits to criticize both Trump and Kim for heightening the risk of conflict. While both leaders’ statements have tended towards the bombastic, to suggest that North Korea and the USA are contributing equally to the rising tension in the region is making a false moral equivalence.

So what does this have to do with mass media? Journalists and reporters need to be constantly vigilant for faulty logic and tortured arguments made by newsmakers. To simply accept these comparisons without pushing back, or to introduce your own moral equivalences into a story, is a rookie mistake that can be avoided once you understand the logical fallacy called moral equivalence.

Hacking, Leaking, and Weaponized Data

The press, and by that term I mean the media industries devoted to journalistic enterprise, love a good leak. Inside information not intended for public consumption that suddenly appears in a package tied with a pretty bow is a gift of great value and consequence.

Leakers come in every form imaginable, and do so for a wide variety of reasons: true whistleblowers looking out for some greater good, disgruntled employees who don’t like what they see happening behind closed doors, an injured party to a dastardly deed, or hackers looking to profit from rich corporations (e.g., the hack of HBO and threat to leak spoilers for upcoming episodes of Game of Thrones)…all find reasons to go the the press with their inside scoop.

It strikes at every level of nearly every organization or power structure. It is one of the power levelers—a way for those near the bottom to inflict damage on those near the top. Presidents, CEOs, celebrities, and clergy…all are susceptible to a well-timed leak.

Sometimes the leaker is passing along information that they came by honestly, and other times it may involve a breach of security protocol or even illegal hacking.

Recent leaks have been widely reported, including: the DNC emails hacked (or were they?) and released to Wikileaks last year, transcripts of President Trump’s phone calls to heads of state, Jared Kushner’s off-the-record meeting with congressional interns (see Wired magazine), FBI director Comey’s anonymous leak to the press,  and the leak of an internal memo at Google that ignited a firestorm of controversy over sex discrimination in the tech industry (see more here and here). The last example also raised questions about when and where it is safe to speak out when speaking out may be controversial and politically incorrect.

In all of these cases the leakers were only part of the equation. The leakers need the assistance of a willing journalist and a willing publisher to distribute the information to the public. Journalistic history is filled with stories about investigative reports that broke because of leakers; perhaps the most infamous being Deep Throat of Watergate fame. But these symbiotic relationships are risky when the motives of leakers are unclear. Leakers may be seeking revenge, or may even leak information in an attempt to promote their own agenda. Sometimes those in positions of power use leaks through intermediaries in order to advance their own version of events. Without corroborating evidence, a leak is simply a rumor…or worse.

The legality of leaking to the press is complicated. Prosecution of illegal leaks that compromise national security is rare but does happen, e.g. Chelsey Manning’s conviction and sentence, which was later pardoned by President Obama. But more often than not the leaker and the news organization escape punishment. This inclination to protect journalists, and their sources, is part of our First Amendment tradition.

For more information about leaks and the media, see this page at the Newseum and listen to this podcast at On The Media.

Did They Really Say That?!

Soundbites have a way of coming back to bite us. Whether we’re a politician, celebrity, or just an average person, we sometimes wish we could take back something that slipped out in an unguarded moment. For those in the public spotlight, these “hot mic” moments have lasting repercussions. An errant comment caught on tape can have disastrous consequences.

For a top 10 list of “hot mic” moments, see Time magazine.

But new technology may make these moments seem, well, so 2010. Adobe is developing, and may soon release to the public, software that will bring the manipulative potential of Photoshop to the world of audio editing. We’ve grown accustom to questioning “Photoshopped” images, but now we’re going to have to question every soundbite as well. This applies to news-makers as well as consumers. When confronted with accusations about an inflammatory statement, public figures will now be able to cast doubt on any recorded evidence that casts them in a negative light. “You must have misunderstood me. I never said that, and here’s an audio soundbite” (that my staff just edited) “to prove that I never said it!”

The folks at RadioLab recently recorded an episode in which they explored the ethical implications of technology that allows not only for audio files to be manipulated, but video files as well. Combining the potential of audio editing with new video morphing software allows technicians to, literally, put words in the mouth of a target of interest. Here’s a video that demonstrates this new technology.

And here’s another demonstration video.

For those concerned about the future of news and the potential for manipulation of documentary evidence, this is a very frightening development.

 

White House Public Relations

The Presidency of the United States is probably the most important job in the country. And the person who represents the President to the press, and to the public, is the press secretary—likely the most important (and most difficult) public relations job in the country.

Last weekend’s shakeup in the White House resulted in the resignation of Sean Spicer as press secretary, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking his place. This is not a job for the faint of heart. While Spicer, who was the butt of numerous SNL jokes, had a brief tenure, five previous press secretaries served even shorter terms.

As only the third woman to fill the role, Sarah Sanders faces a challenging job as the primary spokesperson for this highly controversial, and some would argue highly undisciplined, administration. The first female press secretary was Dee Dee Myers who served under President William J. Clinton. The second female press secretary was Dana Perino, who served out the final years of the presidency of George W. Bush after the sudden death of Tony Snow. Perino’s stint as the President’s spokesperson is of particular interest because she is a 1993 graduate of the mass communications department at CSU-Pueblo (University of Southern Colorado at the time). Now a TV commentator for Fox News, Dana Perino is arguably the most successful graduate of our department.

Public Relations departments and PR practitioners can be found at every level of the job market and in every kind of industry. Private sector businesses, non-profit organizations, and governmental agencies all need professional communicators who understand the power and influence of the media. The field needs people who are effectively in both spoken and written communications, people who know how to function at every level of communication from face-to-face to mass media, and who can do so with the ethical and moral judgement necessary to wield the power of influence for good.

The mass communications department at CSU-Pueblo (formerly USC) is proud of all of our graduates who perform ably in their professions. Some serve faithfully for years in jobs that never gain public recognition, while others, like Dana Perino, experience the scorching heat (and the recognition) that comes from standing in the brightest of spotlights.

Advice from Perino to Sanders

 

Influencer Marketing: It’s Not Just for Celebrities Anymore

It used to be that you had to be a bonafide celebrity to land a celebrity endorsement deal. Win a gold medal, release a gold album, or star in a blockbuster movie and advertisers would line up asking you to pitch their products. The association principle of advertising works by associating a brand, product, or service with an intangible, but desirable, positive attribute. And celebrity status is a particularly attractive association that many brands crave.

Things have changed. Celebrity endorsements have given way to influence marketing. If you have influence, no matter how you’ve earned it, you can cash that in for…well, cash. You’ve got thousands reading your [insert hobby here] blog on a daily or weekly basis? …great, how about mentioning our brand and we’ll send you some free product.  One hundred thousand subscribers to your beauty secrets YouTube channel? Fantastic…how’d you like to represent our product line for a nice monthly salary? A million or so followers on Twitter? We need to talk!

The reason why this is such a thing is because of the power and reach of social media. At the same time, traditional advertising has been suffering from shrinking audiences and diminishing credibility. We’re more likely to believe a friend’s recommendation than an advertising pitch-man’s exaggerated promises. Word of mouth (or online word of “mouse”) is where it’s at. This graphic is from an informative post by Aaron Orendorff on the Mashable website.

 

The title of this blog suggests that this new form of marketing is not just for celebrities anymore. Maybe the point is that the barrier to becoming a celebrity is much lower in this digital, social-mediated landscape. However, if you want to play, you need to know the rules. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently published guidelines governing endorsement deals and has been cracking down on influencers engaging in unethical behavior.

Media Conglomerates, Comedians, and Political Influence

If you’ve watched John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight you know that he has a knack for discussing pithy issues by injecting more than a smidgen of sarcasm and irreverence. His show last week was about Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media company that owns numerous local TV stations and which is poised to grow even larger by buying up the Tribune Media network of stations.

Here’s the show.  (CAUTION: language)

You’ve already seen how Clear Channel became the powerhouse of radio consolidation and how that led to cookie-cutter formats and a loss of local control. That is part of what is causing anxiety for those watching the Sinclair deal unfold.

But there is another factor in this equation. Sinclair Broadcast Group is known for holding conservative political positions. In a media world that tends to skew to the liberal side of the political spectrum this is giving some media pundits a severe case of heartburn.

While cable TV news networks have historically leaned to one end or the other of the political spectrum (e.g. Fox News leans right while CNN and MSNBC lean left), local television stations and their news programs historically reflect the political diversity of their local viewers. It is unusual for local TV news to take a clear position on a politically hot-button issue for the obvious reason that they stand to alienate a significant portion of their viewers, which is bad for ratings, which is bad for the bottom line.

The fact that much of John Oliver’s criticism of Sinclair is delivered with a heavy dose of alarmism suggests that Oliver is himself well to the left of not just Sinclair but a significant segment of the American public. Oliver is not alone. He is joined on the left by former comedic journalist Jon Stewart and current late-night comic Stephen Colbert (both alumni of Stewart’s The Daily Show).  All three (as well as many other comedians throughout history) have been effective messengers for various progressive political causes.

Media companies and media stars can exert political influence overtly or covertly. But if there’s one thing that comedians have shown time and time again it is that getting us to laugh at the absurdities of the target of our scorn may be the most powerful political weapon of all.

 

Selfies: Not just an American thing

I just returned from a vacation in Italy where we saw many wonderful sites. Seeing Saint Peter’s Basilica in person was truly amazing. The Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, and the cathedrals in Sienna and Florence were highlights of the trip. Seeing these sites up close and personal was a reminder that a picture seldom does justice to the real thing. However, as the modern expression goes, “if there’s not a picture, it didn’t happen” …which leads me to the point of this post.

Present everywhere we looked was the ubiquitous selfie stick. And for those traveling with friends, lots and lots of cell phone cameras being used to document every step of the way. I didn’t take my cell phone but I did carry a camera…so I’m not above criticism.

Lining up the shot

But what surprised me a bit was the posing that seemed to accompany the act of documentation. Watching people paste on their smile or pouty lips just before pushing the button was a reminder that what we see on social media is a carefully curated version of our lives. We take multiple pictures until we’re satisfied with the shot that will be uploaded to Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

Posing or praying?

To the right is a picture of a gal and her friend in the baptistry at the cathedral in Florence. Please forgive me if it appears that I’m judging her personal piety, but it did seem odd that she folded her hands just long enough for her friend in the dark blue dress to capture the shot.

Elsewhere I saw plenty of folks taking pictures of themselves or their companions in poses that shouted, “I’m having the time of my life in this very famous place!”

Something that has been a real game-changer is the low cost and instant publishing made possible by digital photography’s marriage to the mobile phone.

Digital killed Kodak

The irony of this struck me as I took a photo of a young girl having her photo taken with a Kodak sign visible nearby. Just a decade or two ago photographic film and processing required made photography a fairly expensive hobby that required delayed gratification (waiting for the film to be processed and printed) before you could even think about sharing the experience with others. Now the picture is taken, reviewed, and uploaded to a global audience in seconds, without any consideration of cost.

But it is not just digital photography that has changed the way we live our lives.

Video games are a constant distraction for young and old. I watched children and adults playing games on their portable devices even while on vacation in amazing locations. Playing video games and having a paniniMy wife calls it “playing Gameboy in the middle of the Grand Canyon” syndrome. This little guy may have been a local so perhaps he was just killing time the way youngsters do in nearly every developed country.

Digital media that connects us instantly to our friends across the room or around the world has changed us…whether for the better or worse is up for discussion. As we explore mass media this summer let’s remember to think critically about how our experiences creating and consuming media change us and those around us. Only then will we be “smart” users of our smart devices.

The News Media Bubble

Politico, a left-leaning web magazine, just published an essay about the bubble in which journalists live. According to the authors the bubble is not just geographic, but also ideological. According to Politico, the media bubble served to insulate journalists from the people and issues that ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump. For most journalists it was not an issue of whether Hillary Clinton would win, but by how great a margin. Was it perhaps because they didn’t understand what was happening across the country? According to Politico,

Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points.

Another essay, this one by pollster and statistician Nate Silver, (the golden boy of recent electoral race coverage), makes the argument that the national media were the victims of group think leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Silver’s essay spends some time reviewing a premise introduced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki’s thesis is that networking theory, applied to information flow, can yield superior results given certain conditions. Whether the crowd is professional journalists or citizen journalists, the idea is that collective wisdom is superior to the wisdom of any one member of the group. That is fine if the conditions are met. If not, group-think, an idea popularized in the 1970s by Irving Janis, leads to poor judgement and low-quality decision-making. According to Janis,

the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups. (https://web.archive.org/web/20100401033524/http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/macdonald/GroupThink.pdf)

Both articles point to a serious problem for national media coverage of politics. More than ever, national journalists are more highly educated, more liberal, less religious, richer, younger, more urban, and much more likely to live in communities with like-minded neighbors. The liberal, coastal, elite journalist is becoming the norm when it comes to national media coverage, and that is a problem for the future of the industry. Some have argued that this trend has led to an erosion of trust and created a credibility vacuum where fake news and lies can thrive.

This was not always the case. Journalists have not always been so out of touch with the audience that they serve. The failure of local and regional newspapers is a significant contributing factor. According to Politico, labor statistics are a clear indication of the trend.

In late 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term, these two trend lines—jobs in newspapers, and jobs in internet publishing—finally crossed. For the first time, the number of workers in internet publishing exceeded the number of their newspaper brethren. Internet publishers are now adding workers at nearly twice the rate newspaper publishers are losing them.

As news shifts from local newspapers and local reporters who reflected their communities’ values, to national news organizations located in major metropolitan centers on the coasts, it has becoming increasingly likely that the news that we’re consuming on social media and television is out of touch with mainstream values and main street sensibilities.

 

Another theory that may be useful to understand what is happening is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory. According to this theory, unpopular ideas are pushed to the margins, where they slowly lose favor and spiral downward to eventual silence. We’re fine with this if it’s a bad idea, one that does not deserve to be sustained. But what about when an unpopular idea is silenced because those in authority don’t want to give it a hearing? What about unpopular ideas that are banished to the margins because groupthink has created a hostile climate for those kinds of ideas? What if the lack of ideological diversity in our newsrooms creates an echo chamber that drowns out dissenting voices?

Conservatives have consistently accused the national media of having a liberal bias, and that appears to be supported by these essays. But I’ll close with this quote from the Politico article…

Resist—if you can—the conservative reflex to absorb this data and conclude that the media deliberately twists the news in favor of Democrats. Instead, take it the way a social scientist would take it: The people who report, edit, produce and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them. Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent got at this when he analyzed the decidedly liberal bent of his newspaper’s staff in a 2004 column that rewards rereading today. The “heart, mind, and habits” of the Times, he wrote, cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced. On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.

Something akin to the Times ethos thrives in most major national newsrooms found on the Clinton coasts—CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico and the rest. Their reporters, an admirable lot, can parachute into Appalachia or the rural Midwest on a monthly basis and still not shake their provincial sensibilities: Reporters tote their bubbles with them.

 

Survivors and Victims of Reality TV’s Deception

Reality TV is constantly inventing new ways to shock its viewers. This past week on Survivor it was the outing of transgender contestant Zach Smith by gay competitor Jeff Varner. In a side story (in real life), Varner was subsequently fired from his job as a real estate agent by a boss who was quoted as saying that Varner is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

The uproar on social media was immediate and unforgiving. Some of the harshest criticism was for Varner and his use of the word “deception” to describe Smith’s secret. Others were harshly critical of CBS for deciding to include the scene after months of deliberation.

But it turns out that CBS and Smith worked closely to prepare for the episode’s airing this past week.

According to the New York Times,

From the moment the episode was filmed nearly 10 months ago, the “Survivor” producers had been consulting with Mr. Smith about how best to handle airing the incident, which included a strategic media rollout and working with Glaad, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group, before the episode’s broadcast.

Jeff Probst, the show’s host and executive producer called it “one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on ‘Survivor.’ ”

But I’m left with a question that goes to the heart of reality TV as a programming genre. For the Survivor-type shows where contestants compete for a grand prize, deception, betrayal, and backstabbing are not only allowed, they are encouraged. Deception is how you play the game on reality TV…and, unfortunately, increasingly so in the world of politics and international relations. But I digress.

One viewer took to Twitter refusing to accept Varner’s apology saying, “Apologies only have meaning when they are expressing sincere regret for a mistake. What Varner did was no mistake. He intentionally humiliated Zeke and tried to justify it.” Exactly! That is how you play the game on Survivor. The drama created by conflict is why most people watch, and have been watching Survivor for more than 13 years. The business model for Survivor and CBS is based on people doing outrageous things in front of cameras and microphones. CBS will cash that check over and over again…or at least as long as the audience shows up asking for more.

But we’re still left with the question; why did this tactic by Varner elicit such a strong response from viewers? Just like the collective judgement directed at United Airlines, the moral outrage targeting Varner and CBS is indicative of society’s desire for justice. We know when something is over the line. But whose line is it, and where should it be drawn?

Some of the ugliest disagreements (on social media and elsewhere) are between people who want to draw the line in a different place than where others think it should be drawn.