The Era Of Disinformation

I know I’ve shared this story before, but it seems more relevant than ever. After publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was interviewed on a South Carolina radio call-in show. It turned out to be the Rush Limbaugh station, so listeners weren’t exactly sympathetic.

A caller challenged the ACLU’s opposition to the then-rampant efforts to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings. He informed me that James Madison had said “We are giving the Bill of Rights to people who follow the Ten Commandments.” When I responded that Madison scholars had debunked that “quotation” (a fabrication that had been circulating in rightwing echo chambers), and that, by the way, it was contrary to everything we knew Madison had said, he yelled “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

That caller’s misinformation–and his ability to indulge his confirmation bias–have been amplified enormously by the propaganda mills that litter the Internet. The New York Times recently ran articles about one such outlet, and the details are enough to chill your bones.

It may not be a household name, but few publications have had the reach, and potentially the influence, in American politics as The Western Journal.

Even the right-wing publication’s audience of more than 36 million people, eclipsing many of the nation’s largest news organizations, doesn’t know much about the company, or who’s behind it.

Thirty-six million readers–prresumably, a lot like the caller who chose to believe what he wanted to believe.

The “good news”–sort of–is that the Silicon Valley is making an effort to lessen its reach.

The site has struggled to maintain its audience through Facebook’s and Google’s algorithmic changes aimed at reducing disinformation — actions the site’s leaders see as evidence of political bias.

This is the question for our “Information Age”–what is the difference between an effort to protect fact-based information and political bias ? And who should have the power to decide? As repulsive as this particular site appears to be, the line between legitimate information and “curated reality” is hard to define.

Here’s the lede for the Times investigative report on the site:

Each day, in an office outside Phoenix, a team of young writers and editors curates reality.

In the America presented on their news and opinion website,, tradition-minded patriots face ceaseless assault by anti-Christian bigots, diseased migrants and race hustlers concocting hate crimes. Danger and outrages loom. A Mexican politician threatens the “takeover”of several American states. Police officers are kicked out of an Arizona Starbucks. Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate, proposesa “$100 billion handout” for black families.

The report notes that the publication doesn’t bother with reporters. Nevertheless, it shapes the political beliefs of those 36 million readers– and in the last three years, its Facebook posts earned three-quarters of a billion shares, likes and comments, “almost as many as the combined tally of 10 leading American news organizations that together employ thousands of reporters and editors.”

The Western Journal rose on the forces that have remade — and warped — American politics, as activists, publishers and politicians harnessed social media’s power and reach to serve fine-tuned ideological content to an ever-agitated audience. Founded by the veteran conservative provocateur Floyd G. Brown, who began his career with the race-baiting “Willie Horton” ad during the 1988 presidential campaign, and run by his younger son, Patrick, The Western Journal uses misleading headlines and sensationalized stories to attract partisans, then profit from their anger.

But Silicon Valley’s efforts to crack down on clickbait and disinformation have pummeled traffic to The Western Journal and other partisan news sites. Some leading far-right figures have been kicked off social media platforms entirely, after violating rules against hate speech and incitement. Republican politicians and activists have alleged that the tech companies are unfairly censoring the right, threatening conservatives’ ability to sway public opinion and win elections.

In the U.S., only government can “censor” in violation of the First Amendment. But tech platforms have vast power to determine what Americans see, whether the exercise of that power is legally considered censorship or not, and they will increasingly determine what Americans see and read.

Most of my students get their news from social media. To say that the outcome (not to mention the sincerity) of Silicon Valley’s efforts to clean up cyberspace will determine what kind of world we inhabit isn’t hyperbole.


Producing A Shared Reality

A major element in the rightwing attack on “Fake News” is the assertion that platforms like Google and Facebook skew to the left, that they privilege liberal results.

Scholars and journalists, for their part, worry about the “filter bubble”–the use of sophisticated algorithms to target individuals with information that is consistent with their pre-existing biases.

A recent study focused on Google provides some reassurance on both counts.  

Google News does not deliver different news to users based on their position on the political spectrum, despite accusations from conservative commentators and even President Donald Trump. Rather than contributing to the sort of “echo chamber” problem that critics fear have plagued Facebook and other social media networks, our research has found that Google News algorithms recommended virtually identical news sources to both liberals and conservatives. That’s an important point to keep in mind when evaluating accusations that Google News is biased.

Our findings are part of an ample and growing body of research on this question. Online services – including Google’s regular search function – may provide intensely personalized information. But media scholars like us have found that when it comes to news, search engines and social media tend to lead people not to a more narrow set of sources, but rather to a broader range of information. In fact, we found, Google News is designed to avoid personalized search results, intentionally constructing a shared public conversation based on traditional criteria of journalistic values.

The construction of that public conversation is critically important. As the eminent media historian Paul Starr has observed, “journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it is about assembling a public to read and react to those stories.” In other words, there is a crucial difference between an audience and a public.

Journalism in a democratic system is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness. It’s about enabling citizens to occupy the same reality.  It’s about facilitating meaningful communication. As the information environment continues to fracture into smaller and more widely dispersed niches, many of us worry that we are in danger of losing the common ground upon which public communication and discourse depend.

When cities had one or two widely-read newspapers, residents were at least exposed to the same headlines, even if they didn’t read the articles. When large numbers of Americans tuned in to Walter Cronkite or to his competitors on one of the other two networks, they heard reports of the same events. If today’s citizens do not encounter even that minimal amount of shared information, if different constituencies access different media sources and occupy incommensurate realities, the concept of a public becomes meaningless.  Informed debate becomes impossible.  In that sort of fractured and fragmented environment, how do citizens engage in self-government?

If I say this is a table, and you insist it’s a chair, how do we come to an agreement about its use?

I hope this study, and the others it cites, are right–and that Americans retain enough of a common language and share enough of a common reality to qualify as a “public.”


Not a Pretty Picture

Vox recently reported on a research project that led to publication of a book titled “Everyone Lies.” If you are one of those people who suspects that humanity is filled with people who are anything but noble, it’s apparently the book for you.

Stephens-Davidowitz was working on a PhD in economics at Harvard when he became obsessed with Google Trends, a tool that tracks how frequently searches are made in a given area over a given time period.

He spent five years combing through this data. The idea was that you could get far better real-time information about what people are thinking by looking at Google Trends data than you could through polls or some other survey device.

It turns out he was right.

Whatever face people assume when they are interacting with other humans, they are clearly far more candid with Google; during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Stephens-Davidowitz tallied numerous searches with racist epithets and “jokes,” finding that those spiked across the country during Trump’s primary run, and not merely in the South. The data painted a picture of a racially polarized electorate that responded to what he termed Trump’s “ethno-nationalist” rhetoric.

There were earlier signs, too. On Obama’s 2008 election night, Stephens-Davidowitz found that “one in every hundred Google searches that included the word ‘Obama’ also included ‘KKK’” or the n-word. Searches for racist websites like Stormfront also spiked.

“There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from traditional sources,” Stephens-Davidowitz says. “Those searches are hard to reconcile with a society in which racism is a small factor.”

The Google search data didn’t just confirm the suspicions of many of us about the extent of racism (and the extent to which irrational hatred and opposition to Obama was based upon the color of his skin). One of the most startling findings was that America is returning to the era of “back alley” abortions–experiencing a crisis of self-induced abortions in places where draconian state laws have cut off most access to abortion clinics.

I’m pretty convinced that the United States has a self-induced abortion crisis right now based on the volume of search inquiries. I was blown away by how frequently people are searching for ways to do abortions themselves now. These searches are concentrated in parts of the country where it’s hard to get an abortion and they rose substantially when it became harder to get an abortion.

As the author notes, people share things with Google that they don’t tell anyone else, not even family members, close friends, anonymous surveys, or their doctors.

People feel very comfortable confessing things to Google. In general, Google tells us that people are different than they present themselves. One way they’re different, I have to say, is that they’re nastier and meaner than they often present themselves.

I’ve done a lot of research on racism, for example, and I was shocked by how frequently people make racist searches, particularly for jokes mocking African Americans. This concealed ugliness can predict a lot of behaviors, particularly in the political realm.

The data also sheds light on anti-Muslim attitudes.

One of the studies I talk about in the book is a study of Islamophobia. It’s not really Islamophobia, it’s like Islamo-rage, or something like that. It’s essentially people with horrifically violent thoughts toward Muslim Americans. People search things like “kill Muslims” or “I hate Muslims” or “Muslims are evil.” These people are basically maniacs and you can actually see minute-by-minute when these searches rise and when these searches fall.

What’s interesting about this is that we’re talking about a relatively small group of maniacs. The average American does not search “kill Muslims” or “I hate Muslims”; it’s a small group but it’s also an important group because these types of people can create a lot of problems. They are the ones who tend to commit hate crimes or even murder Muslims.

Clearly, Google and other emerging technologies can teach us a lot about ourselves. Of course, as the old joke goes, “This book taught me much that I did not wish to know.” The question is whether we can use these hitherto unavailable insights in ways that improve us. Given our irrational responses to data we already possess (responding to episodes of gun violence by advocating for more guns and less regulation, as we’ve just seen again, for example), it’s hard to be optimistic.


Google That!

We’ve returned from vacation, and with reliable internet, blogging will once again become regular. In the meantime, here is my upcoming IBJ column.


My husband and I just returned from a month visiting various parts of Europe–the sort of vacation that becomes possible only when your children are grown and gone. This trip afforded us the luxury of time for observation and reflection that shorter ones rarely did; I even had time to read some of the books I’d optimistically loaded on my IPad.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation?

One thing that immediately struck me was how homogenized citizens from western industrialized countries have become—how much we all look and dress alike. Thirty years ago, on our first trip to Europe, cultural differences expressed in clothing and mannerisms made it fairly easy to spot Americans. Over the intervening years, that has changed. Today, we dress alike, drive the same cars, watch the same television programs and listen to the same (mostly American) music. IPhones, IPods and IPads (and their various clones) are ubiquitous, as are Facebook and Google. Evidence of the globalization of culture—at least pop culture—is everywhere.

But beneath the surface similarities, there is evidence of quite a contrary trend; as Eli Pariser documents in his recent book, “The Filter Bubble,” the internet technology that promises (and delivers) so much is moving us into what he calls a “mediated future”—a future in which each of us exists in a personalized universe of our own construction.

In an effort to give each of us what we want, sites like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are constantly refining their algorithms in order to deliver results that are “relevant” to each particular searcher, and they have more data about our individual likes and dislikes than we can imagine. As a result, two people googling “BP,” for example, will not necessarily get the same results, and certainly not in the same order. Someone whose search history suggests interest in investment information may get the company’s annual report, while someone with a history of environmental interests will get stories about the Gulf spill. Similarly, Facebook delivers the posts of friends and family that its algorithm suggests are most consistent with the member’s interests and beliefs, not everything those friends post.

Pariser calls this the “filter bubble,” and points out that—unlike choosing to listen to Fox rather than PBS, for example—the resulting bias is invisible to us.

Little by little, search by search, individuals are constructing different–and disparate–realities. At the same time, traditional news sources aimed at a general audience—the newspapers and broadcasts that required reporters to fact-check assertions, label opinion and aim for objectivity—are losing market share. How many will survive is anyone’s guess.

The implications of both these changes—globalization and individuation—will be especially profound for our political structures. We are already seeing the dysfunctions that result when we elect people with radically different views of reality.

At SPEA, where I work, our mission is to teach aspiring public managers how to govern. This used to mean classes in budgeting, in cost-benefit analysis, in urban policy and human resource management. Today, we face more daunting questions: How do public servants govern effectively when there is no commonly accepted role for government? How do public managers communicate with citizens who do not—in any meaningful way—occupy the same country (or in some cases, the same planet)? (We have just introduced a new major—Media and Public Affairs—in an effort to prepare our students for these unprecedented challenges.)

We’ve globalized commerce, and everyone wears tee-shirts and jeans. But personalization and social fragmentation is also global, and we can’t Google the future.