Tag Archives: Politics

Facebook v. Science

Social media have helped us cocoon ourselves into comfortable ignorance of “the other side” — so goes the prevailing notion of the last few years, since Facebook has been king.

A team of researchers at Facebook published an article Thursday that claimed to detail how much the site contributes to political echo chambers or filter-bubbles. Published in the journal Science, their report claimed Facebook’s blackbox newsfeed algorithm weeded out some disagreeable content from readers’ feeds, but not as much as did their personal behavior.

A flurry of criticism came from other social scientists, with one, University of Michigan’s Christian Sandvig, calling it Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Sample frame

Perhaps the most important limitation to the findings is the small, and unique, subset of users examined. Although the total number was huge (10 million), these were users who voluntarily label their political leanings on their profile, and also log on regularly — only about 4 percent of the total Facebook population, who differ from general users in obvious and subtle ways. Critics have pointed out this crucial detail is relegated to an appendix.

Despite the sample problem, the authors framed their findings by saying they “conclusively establish [them] on average in the context of Facebook […]” [emphasis added].

As University of North Carolina’s Zeynep Tufekci and University of Maryland’s Nathan Jurgenson pointed out, that’s simply inaccurate. The context the Facebook researchers examined was highly skewed, and cannot be generalized.

While the ideal random sample is not always available and convenient samples can tell us much about subpopulations of interest, the sampling selection here confounded the results. Those who are willing to include their political preferences in their Facebook bio are likely to deal with ideologically challenging information in fundamentally different ways than everyone else does.

In spite of this criticism, though, we now know more about that type of user than we did yesterday.

Algorithm vs. personal choice (what they really found, and didn’t)

Another troubling aspect of the study has to do with the way the main finding is presented. The authors write that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm reduces exposure to cross-cutting material by 8 percent (1 in 13 of such hard-news stories) for self-identified liberals and 5 percent (1 in 20) for conservatives. The researchers also report that these individuals themselves further reduce diverse content exposure by 6 percent among liberals and 17 percent among conservatives.

The comparison of these — algorithm and personal choice — is what caused Sandvig to call this Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Tufekci and Jurgenson say the authors failed to mention the two effects are additive and cumulative. That individuals make reading choices that contribute to their personal filter-bubble is pretty much unchallenged. Yesterday’s study confirmed that Facebook’s algorithm adds to that, above the psychological baseline. This was not the emphasis of the comparison they made, nor of many headlines covering the study.

For instance:

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 3.11.44 PM

Tufecki and Jurgenson also point out the authors apparently have botched the statement of this main finding by claiming “that on average in the context of Facebook individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.” The findings they report are actually mixed: Self-identified liberals’ exposure was more strongly suppressed by the algorithm than by personal choice (8 percent v. 6 percent), while for conservatives the reverse was true (5 percent v. 17 percent).

Science is iterative

Amid all the blowback in the academic world, especially over the inflated claims of the conclusion, some called for a more dispassionate appraisal. Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, who regularly contributes to New York Times’ Upshot, asked for social scientists to “show we can hold two (somewhat) opposed ideas in our heads at the same on the [Facebook] study.” Translated, the study is important, if flawed.

“Science is iterative!” Nyhan tweeted. “Let’s encourage [Facebook] to help us learn more, not attack them every time they publish research. Risk is they just stop.”

But there are rejoinders to that call as well. As University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann pointed out, “‘Conclusively’ doesn’t leave a lot of room for iteration.”

Nyhan’s point, that Facebook could stop publishing its findings given enough criticism also highlights that the study, conducted with their proprietary data, is not replicable, a key ingredient in scientific research.

Journals and journalists

Given the overstated (or misstated) findings, many have called out Science, the journal that published the article. Not only is Science peer-reviewed, but along with Nature is one of the foremost academic journals in the world.

While many of yesterday’s news articles noted the controversy around the publication, others repeated the debated conclusion verbatim. Jurgenson had harsh words for the journal: “Reporters are simply repeating Facebook’s poor work because it was published in Science. [Th]e fault here centrally lies with Science, [which] has decided to trade its own credibility for attention. [K]inda undermines why they exist.”

In the Summer 2014 GJR article, “Should journalists take responsibility for reporting bad science?” I wrote about the responsible parties in such cases. Although social media habits are not as high-stakes as health and medicine, journals, public relations departments and scientists themselves must be more accountable for the information they pass on to journalists and ultimately readers.

Although “post-publication review” is here to stay, the initial gatekeepers should always be the first line of defense against bad science  — especially when the journal in question carries the mantle of the entire Scientific enterprise.

The New York Times gets all politics right. Or wrong.

The headline on p. A1 of the June 16 New York Times read: “Population Shifts Turning All Politics National.” The story by Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin drew that conclusion from the results of two elections, the one in Virginia that cost Eric Cantor his position as majority leader in the House and one in Mississippi that could unseat another Republican leader, Senator Thad Cochran.

The story suggested that “the growth fueled by a migration of newcomers from other parts of the and even abroad is bringing nationalized politics in races further down the ballot…For all the talk about how partisan polarization is overwhelming Washington, there is another powerful, overlapping force at play: Voters who are not deeply rooted increasingly view politics through a generic national lens.”

As a result, the story proposed that “the axiom that ‘all politics is local’ is increasingly anachronistic.”

But it’s just this axiom that inspired Dave Carr’s The Medium Equation column (“Reporters’ Beltway Blind Spot In a Congressman’s Defeat”) of the same day on p. B1: “All politics is local, which may explain why The Richmond Times –Dispatch and the Chesterfield Observer both took David Brat’s Tea Party Challenge to Mr. Cantor seriously, but few of the publications inside the District that follow the majority leader’s every wiggle and wobble sensed that he was leaving the home fires dangerously unattended.”

Carr’s column quotes Jim McConnell, a staff reporter on the Chesterfield Observer, a large weekly in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia about Bret’s sensational victory over Cantor:  “Any credible journalist would have seen it – all I did was talk to the challenger, listen to what people were saying and get a sense of what was happening on the ground in this campaign.”

There is no reason why the Times should not carry two pieces that offer different or contradictory interpretations of the same event. It may well be that the story on page One and the column in the Business section are right, that therefore politics is both national and local, and that read together, readers see the trees and the forest. What’s silly and shallow, however, is the dragging in of the old axioms about “all politics.” Maybe “all politics” have always been both, but the old axioms, clichés by now, make it easier to explain things than hard, complex and often clashing analyses. Leave the clichés to the talking heads, whose expertise they shape and head-nodding mindlessness they induce.

The best comment about this problem was made by Sidney Morgenbesser, a beloved Columbia University philosopher, when asked if he agreed with Chairman Mao’s comment that a statement can be true and false at the same time. Replied Morgenbesser: “Well, I do and I don’t.”

Media coverage of Ukraine’s crisis: War for people’s minds

It now is evident that Ukraine has been noted on the world’s map by a vast majority of Americans. From “somewhere near Russia,” it has moved to “between Russia and the European Union” – and this awareness happened thanks to coverage in all renowned national and local media in the United States and beyond. Since December, Ukraine’s political crisis has shown how some media play with information and how journalism is dependent on geopolitics.

Journalists’ work

Being a Ukrainian native, I was monitoring media from different parts of the world in terms of how they have covered the Ukrainian crisis, paying special attention to those countries involved in resolving the issue: the United States, Europe, Russia and Ukraine itself. Ukraine became a newsmaker ever since unrest grew at Euro-maidan (Kiev’s main square) from what started as peaceful protests against delaying the EU-Ukraine- associated membership deal by pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in November. The unrest converted evolved into a bloody anti-government conflict, with more than 100 killed, thousands injured and pre-war relations between Ukraine and Russia (de facto Russian military aggression) over the Crimean peninsula annexation.

From December to February, Kiev was dangerous place for journalists to work. The first journalist to suffer injuries was Tetiana Chornovol, who worked for the anti-government online publication Ukrainska Pravda. She was beaten by unknown attackers in late December. In January, tension and street violence rose. It seemed that attacks by special police forces were aimed against the least protected and most vulnerable people because of their work conditions: journalists and paramedic volunteers. Ukrainian Espreso.tv provided videos, where police and snipers’ weapons purposely targeted the word “press” and red crosses on protective waistcoats. Forty-six journalists were reported injured, and two dead, after clashes in Kiev.

The journalists’ most recent work has become entangled in controversy and obstacles as the Crimean conflict escalates. A Ukrainian journalist from the weekly magazine Ukrainsky Tuzhden and a freelance photographer were kidnapped and tortured in Crimea. A group of journalists from Ukraine’s national TV network 1+1 was deported from Russia after shooting video in North Ossetia, a territory annexed by Russia from Georgia in 2008. A similar story happened with journalists of the channel Ukraine in the unacknowledged republic of Abkhazia, which has been controlled by Russia since 1993. Journalists still are doing their jobs, but now very differently.

U.S. coverage and the European angle

Among the first media that started covering Ukrainian events were the U.S.newspapers the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and the broadcast network CNN. Attempts to localize news and give pointed opinions prevailed over “pure” informing. As the conflict spread beyond the Euromaidan protests to Ukraine as a whole, with a major hot spot in Crimea, the United States stepped in as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. American media exploded with all kinds of stories, ranging from very supportive and positive toward Ukraine to negative ones as well. The New York Times’ leading opinion pieces, as well as CNN’’s news and commentaries (including Anderson Cooper’s first-hand reporting from Ukraine), mostly expressed neutral and supportive positions. For example, the New York Times ran an opinion column from Nicholas Kristof in which he deliberately explained why the “villains” are the Russian troops in Crimea. The Washington Post published Condoleezza Rice’s opinion story urging a stronger U.S. position in this conflict. Opinion pieces challenging U.S. involvement and support of Ukraine appeared in the Los Angeles Times, including those by Paul Whitefield, who contrasted American internal financial needs with providing monetary support to Ukraine.

European media, not surprisingly, showed more in-depth coverage on Ukraine’s crisis, as geographical closeness is still is a crucial factor for world media to involve their foreign reporters into first-hand coverage. The BBC created a special section on its web-site, with live updating on events via Twitter, Facebook, other media, and its own correspondents. The same kind of attitude to covering Ukrainian events was expressed by the Guardian in Britain and Germany’s Douche Welle. In an edition for non-stop Ukrainian coverage Poland’s most influential newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had special issues published in the Ukrainian language, showing its support in that way.

Despite the different angles in coverage, a general message sent by Western media is that Ukraine is divided within the framework of Ukrainian versus Russian languages and ethnic issues. In fact, this generalization was a case in pre-revolutionary Ukraine. Events from recent months have dramatically influenced people’s views and self-identifications. Newscasts and analytical articles on the nation’s uniting during the conflict are missing in Western coverage, while it is widely shown by Ukraine’s media. This notion of national division has been played for centuries by politicians and historians. Now it is being widely exaggerated by the Russian government to justify that country’s intervention into Ukraine’s sovereignty in Crimea.

Russian propaganda

The portrayal of Ukraine in Russian media cannot be called anything else than propaganda. The majority of Russian television networks (with the only possible exception being Dozhd’ [Rain], which is an opposition TV channel) shows an alternative reality to the coverage from the rest of the world.

The recent facts of pro-government propaganda and press freedom persecution in Russia include a series of resignations from well-known media. The first occurred when Russia Today anchor Liz Wahl quit her job on-air because of unfair coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. A week later, 39 staff members including 32 journalists – and all of the photo editing staff – resigned from Lenta.ru, the oldest liberal online newspaper in Russia. The staffers quit in a show of support for chief editor Galina Timchenko, who was fired from the paper’s independent position and replaced by a pro-Kremlin editor.

Misleading and unfair reporting prevail throughout Russian media, regardless of whether the platform is print, broadcasting or online. Until recently, Russian media on the Internet stayed the least controlled by the government and the most open to publishing diverse opinions. But now it also is being repressed by the government: oppositional web-sites are banned, as well as blogs and live- journal accounts of prominent oppositional leaders Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, the website of radio station Echo of Moscow and more.

Since March 1, when thousands of unidentified troops (in uniforms that resemble those of Russian troops) appeared in Crimea, Russian TV channel Russia 24 reported that thousands of refugees from Ukraine were on the Russia-Ukraine border. In fact, however, they provided archival video that showed cars lined up at a Polish-Ukrainian custom check-point. Officially, just 89 Ukrainians have asked for asylum in Russia during the first two weeks of March. Later, other television networks, while reporting devastating clashes between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainians in Simferopol, used archival video from Kiev’s February protests instead.

The most recent evidence of Russia’s goals to invade and monopolize Ukraine’s informational space includes the military capture of Crimean Tatar’s TV channel ATR, dumping Ukrainian channels from cable networks and replacing them with Russian ones, and the closing of Ukrainian radio stations in Crimea. All this happened at the same time as preparations were made for the illegal referendum about the annexation of Crimea by Russia. While officials in Moscow refuse to take responsibility for these actions their origin are more or less obvious.

Inside view from Ukraine

Staying fair, objective and transparent has been the hardest task for the Ukrainian media. In this situation, when media conglomerates comprising major television networks and publishing houses are controlled by billionaires that were close to Yanukovych’s administration, obeying the duty of objective journalism is hardly achievable. For instance, during the riots in Kiev’s, the reality of Yanukovych’s official position was presented by the TV channel Inter (which is controlled by pro-Kremlin oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who recently was imprisoned in Austria as a result of Interpol and FBI’s investigations). Nevertheless, the majority of national media remained fairly balanced in covering the events. Moreover, the newest positive processes in Ukrainian journalism occurred.

First, almost immediately after the beginning of the clashes at Euro-maidan, the special television online channels Espresso.tv and UkrStream started streaming around the clock from the epicenter of the events. This is a new phenomenon for Ukrainian television, and most of the Ukrainian networks borrowed and retransmitted videos from these channels to cover the events in Kiev.

Second, after 20 years of useless discussions and lost attempts to create public media, self-organized public service broadcasting online channel, Hromadske.tv, was created. Indeed, the boundary conditions of the new revolution forced journalists into this unprecedented step in Ukraine’s history. Prominent journalists from mainstream Ukrainian print, broadcast and online media share their free time after their full-time work assignments to contribute to this public service initiative. So far, it works only in a form of online streaming from one self-maintained studio, combining studio interviews and analytics with onsite web-cams streaming by journalists, and Skype interviews/video conferences. Perhaps, the most- viewed streams were those from ousted President Yanukovych’s residency Mezhihir’ya, where journalists were picturing the royal-like wealth of its former owner. Besides the ethical nuances of this reporting (along with the fact that the majority of national, and some international, media did stories on the treasures of corrupted officials by invading their outcast private residencies), it generated huge social interest. The special public website YanukovychLeaks was created by journalists and civil activists for investigating the corrupt schemes of the former president and his government.

The booming popularity of this long-awaited initiative led to the recent development where Hromandske.tv started broadcasting as a joint project of the television channel First, which is the oldest national TV network (it has a penetration rate of 95 percent of Ukraine’s territory and is the “mouthpiece” of the Ukrainian government). This example of cooperation has been followed by another project of Ukrainian television that aim to unify Ukrainian society.

Social media: So who controls the people’s minds?

The Ukrainian revolution happened with great help from (or because of) social media. Social media are widely used as informational sources now, since it already has been accepted practice for major media players across the globe to disseminate news through them. But person-to-person interaction made Facebook and Twitter, along with Ukrainian and Russian local social media (Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki) key platforms for negotiating the public gatherings at Euro-maidan protests in November. They were used for further coordination of protests.

Dozens of pages that supported and confronted the protests, and that followed the Ukraine-Russia conflict, were created in social media in recent months. Politicians and public figures post comments and tweet about events online. YouTube also is a main platform for the newest streaming videos and the output of public television channels, which shortly after appearing online become widely known in Ukraine. Such use of social media for the needs of mobilizing and influencing people cannot have stayed unnoticed by those interested in information manipulation. The signs of informational war have already been seen in Ukraine, as constant denial-of-service attacks on some of Ukraine’s most-viewed news sites (such as Channel 5, Hromadske.tv, and Ukrainska Pravda) and their YouTube channels are reported. Traditional media are not the main players in this war any more. One should be very picky in choosing sources of information to get the sense of the truth. This might be one of the most obvious inferences about role of Ukraine’s crisis in today’s media world.

 

Senator bars television coverage of committee session

A state senator has barred television coverage of his committee’s consideration of legislation criminalizing the enforcement of federal gun laws in Missouri.

As the senate’s General Laws Committee prepared Jan. 28 to consider the bill, chairman Brian Nieves announced: “Executive sessions are not videotaped, so videos will need to be turned off at this point.” Earlier, Nieves had ordered a reporter for a Columbia-based television station to remove his camera and tripod from the committee room.

“This is the first time I can ever remember that television coverage of a hearing was effectively prohibited since executive committee meetings were opened up in the early ’70s,” said Phill Brooks, the dean of the press corps and the director of the state government reporting program of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Nieves, a Republican from Washington, is the sponsor of the bill that would declare invalid federal gun laws and make it a crime for a federal employee to enforce them. The bill would also let school districts to designate trained teachers to carry concealed weapons.

The bill also would require a federal agent to notify the local sheriff before serving a warrant. A similar bill passed by the legislature last year failed to become law after Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it.

According to Brooks, after the first hearing on the bill last week, Nieves announced that tripods would not be allowed in the committee room, and that a 24-hour notice would have to be given to his office for a camera to be brought in to videotape the meeting.

“Without a tripod, you’d get terrible shaky video,” Brooks said.

Television cameras mounted on tripods are used to cover all other legislative committee meetings.

On Monday, Nieves’ office was given notice by KOMU-TV, Channel 8 in Columbia, of a request to cover Tuesday’s hearing. Jessica Johnson, Nieves’ assistant, responded to the request with an email saying, “Yes, it is OK for them to video today. However, the senator is requesting that no tripods or machines that prevent the view of people be used.”

Brooks said that not only were tripods banned, but cameras were to be placed behind the seating for general public, meaning for video “all you will have is the back of the heads of the witnesses.”

“My reporter made the decision, and I agreed with it, that we would put up the tripod in the normal place where cameras have always been located to cover committee hearings,” Brooks said. “And if the senator objected, he could tell us.”

Nieves had one of his staff order the reporter, Michael Doudna, a journalism school student, to remove the camera and tripod.

There was no explanation for Nieves’ prohibition of videotaping of the committee’s executive session, in which senators discuss and vote on the bills before them. Doudna returned to the committee room without his camera to cover the meeting. The committee approved the bill.

Nieves did not respond to the GJR’s emailed and telephoned requests for an interview. But his assistant, Johnson, shared her email exchange regarding the television coverage request.

“Senator Nieves would prefer that you take up any further concerns you may have with that actual reporter,” Johnson said.

Mainstream media cut back on statehouse coverage as special interests launch

Editor's note: This is a preview of a story that will appear in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – If Joseph Pulitzer could return to Missouri’s state capital, he’d probably recognize a recent development that was familiar during his time: politicians publishing newspapers.

At the beginning of this legislative session, Rod Jetton, a former House speaker, launched a startup weekly, the Missouri Times. The newspaper and its website promotion promised “a different kind of media outlet” that would become “Missouri’s newspaper of politics and culture.”

The journal’s arrival represented a new phase in the evolution of Missouri government coverage. As traditional news organizations have diminished, new media platforms have stepped in.

New technologies also have changed the pace and method of government reporting. Journalists now reach people with bits of information through blog postings and Twitter.

Covering state government, especially during legislative sessions, has always been a foot race. Now reporters no longer have the luxury of daily deadlines, which before provided time to take a breath and to put events into context.

Journalists now deliver a steady stream of information through the Internet. All reporters have “a deadline every minute,” a demand once faced only by wire-service reporters.

“It’s always been a job where you are doing multiple things at once,” said Virginia Young, chief of bureau for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But it’s just multiplied tremendously given the electronic coverage.”

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The hidden story of Citizens United

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Editor’s note: This is a response to a story on the Gateway Journalism Review website written by William H. Freivogel titled “Election results show super PACs can’t buy Republican victories.”

The hidden story of Citizens United this year and for the next couple of years (assuming it’s still in place) isn’t at the federal level — there’s just too much campaign, party and party committee money in the presidential and senate races for the outside money to have a significant influence. But for state- and municipal-level races, it’s a different story. How much would it take to blanket a few state assembly districts in each state with enough money to flip a bunch of statehouses? How much would it take to overrun the judicial election process across some big states? How about replicating Proposition 13 in growing and purpling states like North Carolina and Virginia? Races like these have a lot less money in them to start with, which means that corporate cash could control a much more lopsided debate.

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