February 2011


Elite cues in state judiciary elections

When it comes to electorates, there’s low-information, and then there’s low-information. State legislative elections features a lot of candidates that voters aren’t very familiar with, for example. An open city council primary like the one we just had in Carbondale — in which 16 candidates were whittled down to 12 for the general — is likely to rely on personal networking as much as anything else. But judicial elections are another beast entirely: Most people don’t really get what judges do, particularly at the appellate level and above (see, for example, Gregory Casey’s “The Supreme Court and Myth”).

So part of electing justices turns out to be lots of irrelevant scare-tactics about how Judge So-and-so wants to let child molesters loose in the schools, but another important part is elite cuing in the form of endorsements. You may not really know anything about the candidates or the job they’re running for, and you may not have the helpful cue of party identification, but it’s easy to sort out the latent partisanship of each candidate’s endorsements. Having said, Wisconsin will have a Supreme Court election in April, between incumbent David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg. Let’s look at some of the prominent names in their lists of endorsers:

Prosser – Three former governors, a former lt. governor, apparently every Republican in the state legislature, many county sheriffs and DAs, and the county executive of Waukesha County

Kloppenburg – The county executive of Dane County, the mayor of Madison, several county supervisors, various aldermen, one state representative, and many private citizens.

Non-partisan election status aside, Prosser is the Republican and Kloppenburg the Democrat in this race. Notice the difference between how the parties understand this? The entire Wisconsin GOP is lined up behind Prosser, providing the kind of elite cuing that tells Republican voters how they should cast their ballot, even if they don’t know the first thing about Prosser or Kloppenburg as judges. Wisconsin Democrats, on the other hand, have apparently decided to sit this one out. Keep in mind, like all non-presidential elections, this is a turnout election — getting voters informed and interested in the election is the key to winning, particularly for a challenger. So where are the state legislative caucuses? Where is private citizen Russ Feingold and his considerable organizing and mobilizing weight? This is the first opportunity to demonstrate the energy of the anti-Scott Walker protests can be channeled into something sustained, and it has the added benefit of being a race that will impact the inevitable court decisions about what Walker’s trying to do.

Filed: We R in Control || 17:33, February 27 || No Comments »


I agree with that extremely smart, good-looking previous commenter

Apparently creating corporate-friendly sockpuppets is now Big Business:

After I last wrote about online astroturfing, in December, I was contacted by a whistleblower. He was part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them. Like the other members of the team, he posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression that there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments. I’ll reveal more about what he told me when I’ve finished the investigation I’m working on.

But it now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HB Gary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.

The piece goes on to describe the process by which “persona management” companies provide “pre-aged” fake personae, which have built-in histories of social media use, various profiles and accounts, etc. Apparently the Air Force has just signed a big contract for these types of sophisticated sockpuppets, which is seems have “the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate.” Really? I kind of can’t imagine that anyone of note takes newspaper site comments that seriously. If the past several years have taught us anything, it’s that online discourse is a powerful tool for political organization, but probably not much in the way of a discursive public sphere. Has there ever been an instance of public policy deriving from the balance of blog posts favoring one side or another? Of sentiment analysis driving legislation? No matter how many sockpuppets elite organizations deploy — even if that number were zero — we have better ways of measuring public opinion than looking at what people are saying online. And if our concern is providing a productive environment for learning about policy issues, well, online discussion already doesn’t do that.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 22:51, February 23 || No Comments »


Beyond selective exposure

Whenever possible, I get my news from local pizza joints' Facebook accounts. Still waiting for somebody to break the pizza donation story, Wisconsin State Journal!

In the wake of massively increased ideological media availability (particularly cable news analysis shows and blogs), many political communication scholars have become concerns about the effects of selective exposure — that is, what happens when we choose to only or predominantly use media sources we believe will present agreeable viewpoints or information. This general area of interest has produced a variety of findings, from the obvious (Republicans love Fox News) to the less obvious but intriguing (people who only read blogs they agree with are much more likely to engage in political participation than those who read ideologically diverse blogs). But one thing it hasn’t done much of is challenge the notion of what exposure is, or what types of sources we’re being “exposed” to.

A confluence of two things has brought this to mind. First, along with my colleague Narayanan Iyer and several grad students, I’m prepping a study that looks at the agenda-setting potential of Facebook among college students. In a more general sense, we’re interested of how much influence the inadvertent exposure to news information might have on a low-information audience. In this case, we talking about a very different kind of exposure than one gets from institutional media sources (and I’m thinking of blogs as institutional here), as well as a case where the “selection” has nothing to do with the news content that might appear in your Facebook news feed. Rather, selections are made based on some combination of social connection and social distance. Our “friends” are our family members, classmates and co-workers, but they’re also people we’ve met fleetingly or maybe even have never met in person. There is some evidence of ideological clustering within the Facebook network (see this article by Gaines and Mondak), but there’s no reason to suspect this is any different than the clustering that occurs in offline social networks.

The second thing that happened was that, as a former member of a Wisconsin public employee union, my news feed exploded with updates from my friends are still in the state and involved in the ongoing protests. Some of what’s been posted has been links to news stories, background information, analysis, etc., but most of it has been first- or secondhand accounts from protesters themselves. I’m finding this an unusual experience, because as a voracious news consumer, it’s pretty rare that my Facebook friends post anything I don’t already know about. Now that they’ve become part of the news, Facebook has become my primary source of information about the protests and developments surrounding them. A lot of what they’re posting is not ideologically tinged in the typical sense — that is, it’s not just a bunch of anti-Scott Walker screeds — but rather it’s broadly framed in ways that are sympathetic to the protesters’ concerns. It’s also informative in a way that traditional news coverage has not been, and clearly appeals to me in part because of the minute social distance between myself and my friends. These are people who, apart from being friends, are demographically similar to me, work in the same sector and share a similar disposition toward political engagement. I’m wondering now if the effects of this type of news consumption — both agenda and opinion effects — might not be much stronger than those of reading more distant ideologically agreeable sources, even for a heavy news consumer like me.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 15:15, February 20 || No Comments »


The black box of Facebook

Facebook’s latest innovation is its new Lightbox-esque picture viewer, a very slight change in comparison with the recent big profile changes. Some are predictably annoyed by this change, but it’s an interesting illustration of the inability of any large web organization to ever let well enough alone. Unlike other media, the web is in a constant state of flux. People inside Facebook would probably tell you that this is part of an effort to capitalize on the intense user interest in using the site as a Flickr/Picasa/Imagebucket alternative. But really, those are pretty diverse services serving diverse markets and needs. Instead, I suggest the following is at play.

First, Facebook, the site itself, is a fairly complicated thing. Together with the databases that power it, understanding the site is a big undertaking, and one that requires a decent-size permanent staff of coders. And even if it weren’t that complex, it’s the kind of thing you probably wouldn’t want a bunch of freelancers coming and going on anyway. So you’ve got all these in-house hackers, occasionally doing something big and visible like the new profile, and often doing lower-visibility things like optimizing site speed, developing new ad opportunities, etc. But some of these folks are interface specialists. They just did the new profile. Do you suppose Facebook wants to pay them to sit on their thumbs until it’s determined that the user base is ready to tolerate another significant interface change? Probably not. They need to be working on and changing something in order to justify their salaries. And that’s fine, because a) users have consistently shown that their initial annoyance will subside without any significant number of account deletions, and b) some seemingly minor interface changes that are hated at first become major deals later on (e.g., the news feed). If this really is just about Flickr, well, Flickr is constantly updating, too. So is Google and everybody else. And before you know it, the market has produced a non-stop interface churn.

(And yes, after more than a month, this is what gets me back to posting.)

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 23:56, February 19 || No Comments »