Friday, March 03, 2017

A Study on the Era of Alternative Facts

This media study is important:

Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.
While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.

These are information bubbles, and not the easily bursting kind.  Though the tendency is more noticeable on the right, I see weaker versions of it on the left, too.

I have spent time surfing various right-wing and left-wing sites.  Here are my observations:

1.  It's not just that the same events are presented differently on the right and on the left: which events are viewed as news also varies.  The reason for the Benghazi-craze of so many Republicans is that Benghazi was in "their" news for very long time periods,* whereas other similar terrorist attacks came and went fairly quickly.

2.  Even for the same news, the evidence marshaled to support a particular point of view differs.  As an example, lefties are likely to discuss  Trump's deportation policies by linking to horrible stories about families torn apart in ICE operations, whereas righties are seeing the same policies framed by stories about crimes undocumented aliens have committed.

3.  Where the right-wing sites do differ, perhaps because they are more polarized, is in the creation of odd alternative realities.  George Soros as the man who held Hillary Clinton's puppet strings and who finances almost all left-wing activism in this country is one such alternative reality.  I have never managed to squeeze one dime out of Mr. Soros, sigh.

Another example of those alternative realities is the Pizzagate "scandal," fabricated out of nothing and spread all over the extreme right websites.

This study casts light on the question why so many individuals would believe in something so bizarre.  The answer is that anything repeated often enough becomes part of established truths, if nobody is allowed to offer different evidence. 

4.  The basic biased framework can be strengthened by those who participate on various sites.

My example of that comes from a misogynistic Facebook page, but similar examples would apply to any right-wing site (and, in theory, to any political site).

That particular page is all about the violence committed by women, especially against men, and readers bring in links to stories about female murderers or batterers from all over the world.   These links give the site the appearance of being factual about the great danger of criminal women, but that is only because no links are introduced about the crimes committed by men, including against women.  The latter are statistically many times more common than the former.  Yet the participants on that site appear quite unaware of that fact.

5.  Even when a conservative site uses studies or statistics to bolster its point of view, those almost always omit any studies or statistics which do not support the arguments the site wishes to make.  That is not unexpected for propaganda, but unacceptable for a site, such as Breitbart, which pretends to be a news site.

Do read the whole description of the study.  It's informative, and it lays out the problem we really have to deal with.  If different people believe in different realities we are going to be in great and continuous trouble as a country.


* Fox News' coverage has similar aspects.  For example, vast amounts of time is spent covering any cases where a mother may have murdered her children, even if the cases have no national significance, while other murder cases are not reported at all.

Thanks to Cole d'Biers at Eschaton for the link to the study.

Demolishing the Administative State And Other Bannon Presidency Issues

Remember when Stephen Bannon told us that one goal of the Trump administration is to demolish the administrative state?

Hence the people that Trump (read: Bannon) has nominated.  Their true purpose in most cases is to destroy the departments Republicans loathe.  Betsy deVos to run down public schools and teachers' unions (by doling out cheap lottery tickets, aka vouchers), Scott Pruitt to despoil the Environmental Protection Agency (a quarter of its budget is under threat) and so on.

From that angle this Atlantic article on the State Department is most interesting:

Right now, those I’ve spoken to in the department seem to know very little about what’s going on. The staffer told me that she finds out what’s going on at State from the news—which she spends all day reading because, after years of having her day scheduled down to 15 minute blocks, she has nothing else to do. And even the news itself isn’t coming from official sources. There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago—though they’re scheduled to resume March 6. These briefings weren’t just for journalists. They also served as a crucial set of cues for U.S. diplomats all over the world about policy priorities, and how to talk about them. With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.

Assuming this description is valid, how much of the chaos is due to incompetence and how much of it is a feature, not a bug, of Bannon's plans?

Imagine staffers getting their information from where I get mine:  The news!

Well, at least we don't have to worry about Hillary Clinton's private emails.  That both Pruitt and Pence appear to have used private email accounts for official bidness is not a problem, of course.  They are Republicans and also have no girl cooties.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

My New Idol

Siiri Rantanen is a

retired cross-country skier from Finland. She competed in the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics and won a medal in each of them: a gold and a bronze in the 3×5 km relay in 1956–60 and another bronze in the individual 10 km in 1952; she placed 5th and 15th over 10 km in 1956 and 1960, respectively. She also won five medals at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships.[

And here she skis at the age of 92.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The Presidential Speech

Olympic ski jumping is roughly scored on the basis of style and distance, presidential speeches by style and contents.  But yesterday's speech by our Dear Leader was almost completely scored on the basis of style.  The distance, which here equals the contents of the speech, didn't seem to affect the scoring of the speech.

Far too many in the media, especially the pundits, saw their task as only the scoring of Trump's style.  Someone had written him an indoor version of his campaign speech, with more opaque language, more hidden code words and zero direct insults.  He read that speech from a teleprompter, and the crowds cheered!

Van Jones called him presidential.  Tom Brokaw called his speech the most presidential yet.  Karl Jonathan called him presidential.

That the contents of the speech changed not one single thing in his policies didn't seem to matter.  He called for all Americans to come together and to support his extreme right-wing radical policies, and some pundits were impressed.

But of course it was a good speech.  It was emotional, telling the listeners about the current hell that is the US of A, but also telling them that rescue is coming, that Donald Trump will ride in on his white charger, that he will rescue us all.*

 We will all then ride into the glorious sunset together, holding hands, ride  into that America where there are no constraints, where all promises will be fulfilled, where all crime will be eradicated, all poverty cured,  and where the Statue of Liberty no longer opens her arms to the tired, poor and huddled masses, but only to those who have an engineering degree and a trust fund.

Yes, it was a good speech, because Trump's speeches are scored not on the same basis as the speeches of previous presidents but on the trump-o-meter:  His own past awkward history.  Compared to that history, reading relatively smoothly from a teleprompter indeed is a presidential achievement.

It was also a terrible speech, filled with misinterpreted or flawed data and promises which cannot be kept by anyone not divine.  If it made the listener feel good that was caused by those impossible promises and the rapid leaps over what the actual solutions might be that create this paradise we are all lurching towards.

And it was a terrible speech because it presented the very policies Trump is pursuing as something wonderful:  He still tells us that cutting health insurance will make it more available, that it is imperative to move money from the poorer to the richer by reducing taxation of corporations and the one percent,  that it is equally imperative to close the doors of this country to all but those whom the corporations want to employ without paying for the necessary training.  He  still plans to play the Lone Cowboy in international politics, he still plans to put a stop to reproductive choice for women and his plans still smell of white** nationalism.

Given all this, why did some pundits decide that the speech made Trump "presidential?"  Is it because he was more fluent, less rude and less childish than before?  Or is it because he has frightened the press by calling it the "enemy of the people?"  Or are we still using the false equivalences in political coverage where every criticism of a Republican president should be matched with at least one praise?

Remember Hillary Clinton's email coverage?   Can you imagine how this speech would have been scored for style if it had been given by president Hillary Clinton?  Or what the conservatives would now say if president Clinton had ordered the Yemen raid to take place and then put the blame for its botched nature firmly on the generals?  Yet it was the presence of the widow of the fallen Navy Seal at the speech which offered Trump the best opportunity for creating an emotional national moment of patriotic sacrifice and compassion.***

It's worth pointing out that someone in the White House found it astonishing how easily the press was tamed.  All that was needed were style points.****

* Well, not all, of course.  But the right types of people.
**  White male nationalism, really, because Trump's focus on the armed forces, the military and infrastructure projects are all aimed at increasing jobs in traditionally male occupations and because he supports limitations on women's reproductive choice, perhaps to pass the control of that to other authority figures in their lives.
***  For a different view, read this.
**** And, to be fair, the fact Trump (or his speech writer) finally made a statement against the racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic attacks which seem to have sprouted up everywhere since his election.

Real Men Are Wallets?

This is a billboard in or near Winston-Salem, North Carolina:

It has been purchased by a company which wishes to remain anonymous.

When I saw the picture, I immediately started adding various words to the end of the first sentence.  I think "sex" would win.*

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

America First? The Gutting of Foreign Aid.

Trump's budget plan includes cutting foreign aid, which is currently about one percent of all federal spending, or one dollar out of each one hundred spent.  Cutting foreign aid to zero wouldn't do much to reduce the federal deficit, but it could weaken the powers of US foreign diplomacy to avert unrest in this world.

Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post speculates that a focus on cutting foreign aid comes about because not even the Republicans are that keen to cut domestic programs, to give more money to the military.  She also describes a recent poll which shows that many people are uninformed of the tiny size of foreign aid in the overall federal spending:

Rampell notes: "In fact, of all the programs included in this survey, “foreign aid” garnered the highest share of responses calling it a major contributor to federal debt."

This is fascinating.  A 2015 survey also noted that people vastly overestimate how much is spent on foreign aid:

A large majority of the public overestimates the amount of the federal budget that is spent on foreign aid. Similar to past Kaiser polls, just 1 in 20 correctly state that 1 percent or less of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. About half say it is more than 10 percent of the budget, and, on average, Americans say that spending on foreign aid makes up roughly a quarter of the federal budget.

Bolds are mine.

I wasn't able to find the size estimates by political affiliation, but more Republicans than Democrats believe that foreign aid contributes to the national debt, and 63% of Trump voters in the recent survey believe that foreign aid greatly contributes to the federal debt, while only 34% of Clinton voters agreed with them.

All this makes me wonder about the confidence of beliefs which are not based on factual data.  This article is worth reading in that context.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Trump:"Nobody Knew That Health Care Could Be So Complicated." Call Me Nobody Then.

I am going to embroider these sentences on the pillow I punch when my red-hot anger gets too much for me:

“I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” Trump said. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
This is the deep wisdom our Dear Leader shared with us, concerning the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)  he promised his flock during the campaign. 

Well, call me Nobody, because I knew how complicated constructing a health insurance system is.  And imagine this: People even study those complications for years and years, and get degrees in that field.

That means there are quite a few of us Nobodies.

Sigh.  Enough Americans voted for a Know-Nothing, and now we are all going to suffer for that.

A small reminder:  The Republicans want to kill the ACA not because the flaws it has but because of the taxes that the wealthier taxpayers must pay to fund it.

Any replacement they might concoct is going to mean less access to good quality health care for low-income individuals.   Otherwise those "tax cuts" can't be funded.

Trump: The US Needs More Weapons.

Trump is going to ask more money for military spending.  It's supposed to come from cuts in the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Because there is no climate change, at all. 

To put that request into perspective, note this:

The U.S. outpaces all other nations in military expenditures. World military spending totaled more than $1.6 trillion in 2015. The U.S. accounted for 37 percent of the total.
U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world, combined.

The US already spends as much as the next seven big-spending countries in the world.  Clearly there is no amount that can ever be enough, just as there is no minimum amount that the Republicans would be willing to leave into Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

Perhaps that is because the very rich don't see Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security as programs which defend them against premature death, poverty, pain and suffering?  But they do fear imaginary hobgoblins under their beds and want more bombs to keep them away.