Filters And Lies

I know I carp constantly about the degree to which propaganda and conspiracy theories have displaced credible information, with the result that today’s Americans occupy different realities. It’s easy to blame social media for the reach of disinformation and lies–and social media does bear a significant amount of the blame–but research also illuminates the way propaganda has changed in the era of cable news and the Internet.

That research has identified two modern mechanisms for eroding social trust and constructing alternate realities. One –to quote Steve Bannon’s vulgar description–is to “flood the airways with shit.” In other words, to produce mountains of conflicting “news” along with lots of “shiny objects.” The faux “news” confuses; the shiny objects distract. Citizens don’t know what to believe, what parts of the fire hose of information, disinformation, and outright invention they can trust. They either accept a particular storyline (chosen via confirmation bias) or opt out.

But it isn’t simply the fire hose approach that has eroded our common realities. These days, when people get most of their news from partisan sources, all too often they simply don’t get news that is inconsistent with partisan biases.

A recent, widespread report illustrates that technique. As the lede put it, “The problem with Fox ‘News,’ the cable TV channel, isn’t just what it is — it’s also what it isn’t.” It was a fascinating new study in which arch-conservative Fox TV viewers were paid to watch CNN for a month.

The study, titled “The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers,” was performed by a pair of political scientists: David Broockman, who teaches at UC-Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla, who teaches at Yale.

 According to Broockman and Kalla, when these Fox viewers watched CNN, they heard about all sorts of things Fox wasn’t telling them. They processed that information. They took it in. They became more knowledgeable about what was really going on in the United States.

The individuals who took part in the experiment didn’t change their political leanings or partisan preferences,  but the experience did alter their perceptions of certain key issues and political candidates.

The study authors differentiated between “traditionally emphasized forms of media influence,” like agenda setting and framing, and what they call “partisan coverage filtering”: the choice to selectively report information about selective topics, based on what’s favorable to the network’s partisan side, and ignore everything else.

The article emphasized what the author called the “real problem” with Fox : its viewers aren’t just manipulated and misinformed — they are left ignorant of much of the news covered by more reputable outlets. Fox gives them a lot of “news-like” information, but they don’t learn about things like Jared Kushner getting two billion dollars from Saudi Arabia.

That conclusion reminded me of another research project a couple of years ago. People were asked to identify their primary news sources and then quizzed on things currently in the news. Those who named Fox as their preferred news source knew less than people who didn’t watch any news from any source.

Lest you think that “filtering” of this sort is a tactic exclusive to the Right, when one of the authors of the research study was interviewed on CNN, he noted that CNN, too, filtered its reporting.

CNN’s Brian Stetler interviewed Joshua Kalla, one of the co-authors of the study, and they had the following exchange:

“You call this partisan coverage filtering,” Stelter told Kalla. “And basically, you’re proving what we’ve sensed for a while, which is that Fox viewers are in the dark about bad news for the GOP.”

Kalla confirmed the Fox News coverage model but put a stop to the victory lap: “On the flip side, CNN engages in this partisan coverage filtering as well… For example, during this time, the Abraham Accords were signed, and these were the agreements where Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed a major peace agreement. And we see that Fox News covered this really major accomplishment about 15 times more than CNN did. So we established both networks are really engaging in this partisan coverage filtering. It’s not about one side, it’s about the media writ large.”

To be fair, CNN is apparently less culpable in this regard than Fox..

America’s ugly politics is obviously attributable to a lot more than the country’s media environment, even if you throw in the very divisive algorithms used by social media. (After all, the KKK didn’t use the Internet.) But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both mass media and social media have contributed disproportionately to our loss of a common reality.

As always, the questions are: what policies might make things better? And can we pass those policies once they are identified?

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Those Dueling Realities

News literacy matters more than ever–and we live at a time when it is harder and harder to tell truth from fiction.

One example from the swamps of the Internet. The link will take you to a doctored photo of  actor Sylvester Stallone wearing a t-shirt that says  “4 Useless Things: woke people, COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden.” In the original, authentic photo, Stallone is wearing a plain dark t-shirt.

The News Literacy Project, which issues ongoing reports of these sorts of visual misrepresentation, says this about the Stallone t-shirt.

Digitally manipulating photos of celebrities to make it look like they endorse a provocative political message — often on t-shirts — is extremely common. Such posts are designed to resonate with people who have strong partisan views and may share the image without pausing to consider whether it’s authentic. It’s also likely that some of these fakes are marketing ploys to boost sales of t-shirts that are easily found for sale online. For example, this reply to an influential Twitter account includes the same doctored image and a link to a product page where the shirt can be purchased.

It’s bad enough that there are literally thousands of sites using text to promote lies. But people have a well-known bias toward visual information (“Who am I going to believe, you or my lying eyes?””Seeing is believing.” Etc.) With the availability of “deep fake” technologies, the ability to doctor photographs has become easier, more widespread, and much harder to detect.

The Guardian recently reported on the phenomenon, beginning with a definition.

Have you seen Barack Obama call Donald Trump a “complete dipshit”, or Mark Zuckerberg brag about having “total control of billions of people’s stolen data”, or witnessed Jon Snow’s moving apology for the dismal ending to Game of Thrones? Answer yes and you’ve seen a deepfake. The 21st century’s answer to Photoshopping, deepfakes use a form of artificial intelligence called deep learning to make images of fake events, hence the name deepfake. Want to put new words in a politician’s mouth, star in your favourite movie, or dance like a pro? Then it’s time to make a deepfake.

As the article noted, a fair percentage of deep-fake videos are pornographic. A firm called “Deeptrace” identified 15,000 altered videos online in September 2019, and a “staggering 96%” were pornographic. Ninety-nine percent of those “mapped faces from female celebrities on to porn stars.”

As new techniques allow unskilled people to make deepfakes with a handful of photos, fake videos are likely to spread beyond the celebrity world to fuel revenge porn. As Danielle Citron, a professor of law at Boston University, puts it: “Deepfake technology is being weaponised against women.” Beyond the porn there’s plenty of spoof, satire and mischief.

But it isn’t just about videos. Deepfake technology can evidently create convincing phony photos from scratch. The report noted that a supposed Bloomberg journalist, “Maisy Kinsley”,  who was a deepfake, had even been given profiles on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Another LinkedIn fake, “Katie Jones”, claimed to work at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but is thought to be a deepfake created for a foreign spying operation.

Audio can be deepfaked too, to create “voice skins” or ”voice clones” of public figures. Last March, the chief of a UK subsidiary of a German energy firm paid nearly £200,000 into a Hungarian bank account after being phoned by a fraudster who mimicked the German CEO’s voice. The company’s insurers believe the voice was a deepfake, but the evidence is unclear. Similar scams have reportedly used recorded WhatsApp voice messages.

No wonder levels of trust have declined so precipitously! The Guardian addressed the all-important question: how can you tell whether a visual image is real or fake? It turns out, it’s very hard–and getting harder.

In 2018, US researchers discovered that deepfake faces don’t blink normally. No surprise there: the majority of images show people with their eyes open, so the algorithms never really learn about blinking. At first, it seemed like a silver bullet for the detection problem. But no sooner had the research been published, than deepfakes appeared with blinking. Such is the nature of the game: as soon as a weakness is revealed, it is fixed.

Governments, universities and tech firms are currently funding research that will  detect deepfakes, and we can only hope that research is successful–and soon. The truly insidious consequence of a widespread inability to tell whether an image is or is not authentic would be the creation of a “zero-trust society, where people cannot, or no longer bother to, distinguish truth from falsehood.”

Deepfakes are just one more element of an information environment that encourages us to construct, inhabit and defend our own, preferred “realities.” 
 

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Will Propaganda Win?

Did Betty White die because she got a Covid vaccine booster?

Evidently, that’s one of the messages being circulated by the (very busy) purveyors of what we politely call “misinformation” and what is more accurately labeled propaganda. 

According to the News Literacy Project,

 Propagators of anti-vaccine disinformation previously have seized on celebrity deaths — including baseball great Hank Aaron; boxer Marvin Hagler; Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; and rapper DMX — to falsely impugn the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Remember: Vaccinated people also die of other causes and a significant portion of the population, including celebrities, are vaccinated. Posts that falsely connect high-profile deaths to vaccines are often attempting to exploit the public’s emotions to generate fear and distrust.

With respect to a phony Betty White quote used in that particular effort, the Project noted

This particular rumor has another red flag: The fake quote has been added to a screenshot of a social media preview for an actual article in which the quote never appeared. This lends the fabricated quote an air of authenticity without providing a clickable link, making it less likely that people will check the alleged source to confirm that the quote is authentic.

I subscribe to a couple of newsletters devoted to news literacy. There are some valiant efforts “out there” to combat the “choose your own reality” media environment we currently inhabit–efforts to provide people with mechanisms for evaluating the credibility of social media posts.

In addition to debunking the suggestion that 99-year-old Betty White died from a vaccine booster, the most recent newsletter from the News Literacy Project highlighted the continued, determined campaign to peddle the “Big Lie.” 

A year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the role of misinformation in fueling the historic attack continues to come into clearer focus, as does the extent to which falsehoods still shape Americans’ divided views of the deadly riot. Misinformation swept across podcasts, Facebook — as documented in this new investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post — and other social media platforms ahead of the attack, allowing false narratives to take root and spread. Some news organizations recently published fact-checking roundups that debunk persistent falsehoods and underscore the ongoing threat misinformation poses to democracy.

The problem, of course, is that the folks most susceptible to these falsehoods, and most likely to disseminate them further, don’t read or trust outlets like ProPublica and The Washington Post. Instead, they look for more ideologically compatible sources when they engage in what we used to call “cherry picking”–what psychologists call “confirmation bias”–in their search for information.

No matter how off-the-wall any particular belief might be, there’s a website out there confirming it. (As I used to tell my Media and Public Policy students, if you really believe that aliens once landed in Roswell, New Mexico, I can find you several websites with pictures of the aliens…)

Right now, credible media outlets are focused on very real threats to American democratic institutions. And although it is absolutely true that the country has previously faced and overcome significant challenges to our unity and constitutional system, I can’t help thinking about what is different this time. I think about  that quote attributed to Mark Twain to the effect that “that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”

What is different about the stanza of that rhyme that we currently occupy is an unprecedented media environment–the extent of disinformation and propaganda, the ease of accessing false “evidence” proving that this or that conspiracy theory is correct, and the consequential, damaging absence of a widely shared reality.

It has never been easier to believe nonsense. It has never been easier to attribute the inevitable disappointments in life to nefarious (albeit non-existent) machinations of “others”– those people who look, think or pray differently.   

Political scientists and (some) politicians have long emphasized the critical importance of a free press to a free society. That’s why the First Amendment prohibited government suppression–i.e.,censorship. But censorship–like so much else–has evolved. Thanks to new communication technologies, contemporary autocrats have discovered that controlling the flow of information no longer requires suppression: censorship can be achieved simply by sowing confusion and/or drowning out disfavored news.

We are about to see what happens when credible journalism is buried in bullshit– swamped by outlets purveying partisan propaganda and lunatic conspiracy theories–and citizens at that media smorgasbord are invited to pick and choose from the copious selection. 

I’m very much afraid this “rhyme” is uncharted territory.

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No News Isn’t Good News

When I first retired, I began casting around for projects I might do to occupy my newly-freed-up time. (I’m still looking, btw…) My youngest son wanted me to get credentialed as a reporter and focus my efforts on Indiana’s Statehouse, which he correctly noted is a gerrymandered, far-right mixture of self-dealing, arrogance, bad policy and general nuttiness.

It is, after all, a chamber that hasn’t come all that far since passing a bill to change the value of pi.

There hasn’t been decent reporting on the shenanigans of our legislature since Mary Beth Schneider retired from the Statehouse beat, back when the Indianapolis Star at least pretended to cover state and local government.  But–although I certainly agree with my son that the lack of reporting on state government is a huge problem–I didn’t agree that I was the person to address that information deficit. (My kids don’t seem to understand just how limited my skills are, or how old and tired I am…)

That said, it appears that Indiana’s isn’t the only state legislature to be operating without scrutiny from media watchdogs, and there is a new effort to turn that around. A friend recently sent me a report from the Washington Post about a nonprofit news organization that has been formed to fill that gap.

With funding from foundations and a variety of donors, States Newsroom formed two years ago to attempt to fill a void in what many government watchdogs and civil-society experts believe is one of the biggest manifestations of the local journalism crisis: the dire shortage of reporters covering state government.

On Monday, States Newsroom will announce plans to nearly double its presence, from its current 25 states to about 40 over the next two and a half years. It will open its next five outlets in Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, South Carolina and Kentucky. It’s also launching “News from the States,” a new online clearinghouse to showcase all their affiliates’ reporting.

Each of the bureaus is independent,  and most are managed by veteran journalists. The average staffs consist of four or five reporters. And importantly, each bureau allows other news organizations to republish its work for free.

“State government and politics and policy have the most impact on people’s lives and it’s covered the least,” said States Newsroom director and publisher Chris Fitzsimon. “That’s really why we exist.”

The number of newspaper reporters dedicated to covering statehouses has been declining for decades, dropping by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014 and outpacing overall newspaper job losses over that time, according to Pew Research Center survey. And that was before the more recent blows to the newspaper industry, with nearly 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers vanishing between 2018 and early 2020, according to a University of North Carolina study, even before the pandemic worsened their economic picture.

Can a nonprofit media organization survive financially? That’s the zillion-dollar question.

States Newsroom raised close to $10 million dollars in 2020. In the interests of transparency, it posts a list on its website of every donor who has contributed over $500–according to the article in the Post, the list currently includes individuals, foundations, and other entities like the Google News fund and a major union of public employees. A foundation established by Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, who briefly entertained joining a bid to buy Tribune Publishing Company last year, gave an early $1 million dollar donation.

As the article noted, for many years smaller newspapers relied on wire services like the Associated Press to fill their pages with the kind of statehouse reporting that they didn’t have the personnel to produce themselves. But increasingly, small newspapers can’t afford to subscribe to the AP, and as the newsrooms of better-established papers have been emptied out by their rapacious corporate owners, those news organizations have simply lacked the wherewithal to cover state legislatures.

When I visited the States Newsroom website, I noted the absence of an Indiana operation. Maybe if a number of unhappy Hoosiers contribute, we can convince the project to add Indiana to its growing list of bureaus. After all, what’s our idiotic state motto? “Honest to Goodness, Indiana?”

Well, Honest to Goodness, we need a lot more light on our Indiana lawmakers!

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It Isn’t Just Gannett

The consolidation of the country’s newspapers has been a preoccupation of  Americans who recognize the extreme importance of “the press”-who appreciate the outsized role that journalism plays in community and self-government. Large-scale, rapacious companies like Gannett (see yesterday’s post) have been the target of withering criticism for years.

But there’s a difference between corporations like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital.

Gannett and its ilk were convinced that they could operate newspapers more efficiently–that they could do more–or at least as much– with less, and thereby continue to enjoy the high profit margins that the industry used to provide. Quality journalism was secondary–it was just the widget/product that happened to generate the all-important profits. (The fact that the company greatly overpaid for many of the papers it purchased made that optimism unrealistic.) Their first loyalty was–and is– to the bottom line, but they at least give lip service to the importance of journalism.

Hedge funds like Alden never bothered; they’ve simply “strip mined” the newspapers they’ve purchased–intentionally destroying them. As the linked article puts it, these funds are composed of

investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self

The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital. Since they bought their first newspapers a decade ago, no one has been more mercenary or less interested in pretending to care about their publications’ long-term health. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that Alden-owned newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of their competitors; not coincidentally, circulation has fallen faster too, according to Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst who reviewed data from some of the papers. That might sound like a losing formula, but these papers don’t have to become sustainable businesses for Smith and Freeman to make money.

Alden’s aggressive cost-cutting makes Gannett look generous. The hedge fund has found a financially-rewarding formula: it continues to operate the newspapers it acquires at a profit for a few years, but during those years, it turns out a steadily worsening product and alienates subscribers.

This investment strategy does not come without social consequences. When a local newspaper vanishes, research shows, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagement. Misinformation proliferates. City budgets balloon, along with corruption and dysfunction. The consequences can influence national politics as well; an analysis by Politico found that Donald Trump performed best during the 2016 election in places with limited access to local news.

With its acquisition of Tribune Publishing earlier this year, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers, including some of the country’s most famous and influential: the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News. It is the nation’s second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Some in the industry say they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith and Freeman end up becoming the biggest newspaper moguls in U.S. history.

The linked article describes what happens after an acquisition by Alden, telling the stories of specific newspapers, the people who worked at them, and the cities and towns they no longer serve. It also profiles the men who run Alden–men who proudly identify themselves as “vulture capitalists” and who are identified by others as the “grim reapers” of journalism.( At least one of them–unsurprisingly–is a  major supporter of Donald Trump, whose constant attacks on the news alarmed people who understood the importance of journalism to democratic governance.)

I cannot do justice to the Atlantic’s thorough and meticulous reporting in a brief blog post. Everyone reading this should click through and read the well-researched and eye-opening article in its entirety.

The crisis in local journalism has been the subject of concern and debate for well over a decade. We are now at a point where–in the absence of viable replacements for what has been lost–repairing the damage to governance and community will be difficult to impossible to achieve.

I never imagined quoting Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, but without a robust and vigorous press, we won’t know what we don’t know.

If American democracy collapses, Mitch McConnell and the sniveling invertebrates in the  GOP will share responsibility with vulture capitalists like Alden Global Capital.

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