‘Super Special Questions’ Category Archive

Moving forward: RQ5. Who sets Trump’s agenda?

In my post on media effects, I mentioned that Donald Trump himself had essentially become a media outlet as far as news information flows were concerned. He both creates and distributes content (specifically his rallies and Twitter feed), which has significant intermedia agenda setting effects on both traditional and non-traditional news sources. At the same time, there’s ample evidence that those same sources have significant agenda setting effects on Trump:

Several seemingly out-of-left-field tweets by Trump, both during and after the campaign, have later been connected to the times that cable news aired a story on that topic. He’s also apparently responded to a variety of online stories, such as Vanity Fair‘s thorough trashing of the steakhouse in Trump Tower. Of course, we also know that Breitbart and its coterie of white nationalist ducklings have his ear as well. All of these things contribute to setting Trump’s agenda, while he, in turn, contributes to setting the agenda of the mainstream press and political social media.

Since Trump tweets fairly often but almost never talks to the press (remember, he’s a media outlet, not a source), we have access to a pretty good representation of his agenda. Comparing the topics he tweets about with a timeline of cable news topics and the Twitter feeds of big online publications (including traditional outlets) would provide a good sense of where his moment-by-moment agenda — which will ultimately be filtered through to the traditional press — is coming from. This could also offer a pathway to resistance of a president that will be uniquely concerned with media and appearances. Taking a cue from his response to Vanity Fair, understanding where his agenda is built could allow for an organized campaign of, to be blunt, insults and disrespect centered around places he is most likely to see them. Trump is working with a margin of about 80,000 votes in three states, no established networks of political allegiance, and a hair-trigger temper; sowing dissension along the edges of his coalition by provoking a negative agenda could be a successful form of asymmetrical guerrilla politics.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:24, December 29 || No Comments »

Meowtivated reasoning

Just imagine how many songbirds this precious kitten slaughtered while he lived feral.

Just imagine how many songbirds this precious kitten slaughtered while he lived feral. The look in his eyes suggests it was a lot.

Switching things up a little here — let’s talk about cats. Five years ago this morning, a feral kitten wandered into our yard and got the neighbors’ dog in enough of a tizzy for me to go outside to see what was up. He was malnourished, filthy, and untagged; soon enough he became our cat, Thunder. Every year or so, when a little news boomlet happens about a new study of the number of small animals killed by loose cats, I think about how his first four months or so went. He’s an inside cat now, but he loves being outside in the harness that he hates. We also have inside birds (because we are dumb) who have their own room (because we are smart), and he loves them too, in a way. I don’t want to think that he and the feral neighborhood cats that look so much like him are destroying the local wildlife ecosystem, but I keep hearing that they are.

It turns out that I’m not the only biased cognition scholar who has thought about this from the pro-cat perspective. Dan Kahan wrote a few years ago on this topic, noting that his initial reaction to a 2013 study was heavy skepticism that led him to dive into primary literature on the topic. Interestingly, he found that his biases were basically right, and that the tendency for these largely unsupported studies to frequently emerge was a big failure of science communication.

But they also present a very interesting test possibility for the influence of social identity-relevant information sources. Cat lovers, and especially those with a highly central cat-related social identity aspect, are likely to react negatively and with disbelief to a study like this. But what if it’s presented in a positive frame by a cat-focused site along the lines of The Conscious Cat? Or a negative frame, for that matter? Compared with an identity-neutral source, does the identity-relevant source make information and opinion uptake more likely, including the case of counter-bias views? I did a study similar to this last year related to vaccine beliefs, and it didn’t really work that well for reasons that I think had a lot to do with the experimental stimuli. This could be a cleaner way to get at the same identity-media mechanism, and it’s something I have in my queue for the spring.


Filed: Super Special Questions || 8:53, December 24 || No Comments »

Moving forward: RQ4. What did voters know about 2016’s major campaign stories?

Someone shoved this flier in my mailbox (an illegal act, I might add!) right before the election. This story is a nonsense conspiracy theory, which is to say it is fake. That doesn't mean the incoming National Security Advisor won't tweet about it, however.

Someone shoved this flier in my mailbox (an illegal act, I might add!) right before the election. This story is a nonsense conspiracy theory, which is to say it is fake. That doesn’t mean the incoming National Security Advisor won’t tweet about it, however.

If the press exists to inform the public, how can its performance be assessed? Journalists often respond to critique by noting that partisans on both sides are unhappy with their reporting. However, this sort of reflexive framework, a fundamentally moon-based journalism, can’t really tell us anything about how the public has been served. A better way is to take a sun-based approach, and figure out what news organizations have actually informed the public about by measuring public knowledge.

This isn’t as easy as it might sound, and there are a variety of approaches in political science to measuring political and civic knowledge (and other kinds of public knowledge in other areas). Large-scale surveys typically use true/false or multiple choice questions by necessity, which have the down side of allowing educated guesses, or at least giving an additional prompt to recall information that might otherwise have been inaccessible in memory. For example, this Buzzfeed survey, while illuminating, doesn’t tell us anything beyond whether people think they heard about a story, which could be accurate or could be the result of a bunch of cognitions running together. Another way of doing this is with open-ended questions that ask respondents to describe what they know about a particular topic, but which give them as little as possible in the prompt.

This is a particularly important question for examinations of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but also for all elections going forward in liberal democracies. The reason is “fake news,” a term that in the last few weeks has come to represent misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, hoaxes, and even parody to a certain extent. Although the political commentary community doesn’t have a great conceptual handle on “fake news” yet, we do know the election was subject to both widespread hacking and leaking of private information, and several stories that compounded upon themselves in partisan information loops fed by motivated reasoning. Occasionally these stories came up for air, but it’s reasonably likely that their main aggregate effect was simply to toxify the entire news environment.

Unlike some of my other question generation posts, this is a question I’m actually planning a study around. What I’m really interested in is what information people had available when certain story concepts were primed by events in the campaign, or at least what they have that can still be primed now. Specifically, I’m going to use open-ended questions to ask survey participants to describe in as much depth and details as they can three “scandal” stories each about the two major party candidates: for Hillary Clinton, her emails, her paid speeches, and the Clinton Foundation; and for Donald Trump, his tax returns, accusations of sexual assault against him, and the Trump Foundation. I’ll also ask about two fact-focused post-election topics: the percentage of the popular vote won by each candidate, and how turnout compares with that of 2012. After those knowledge questions, I’ll have an extensive battery of media and information behavior questions, political attitudes and behaviors, and a couple public opinion perceptions.

These results could be paired with content analysis (or reports such as this one from the Shorenstein Center on campaign news coverage) to see how well knowledge matches news volume, but I expect them to be interesting in their own right. The preliminary question that got me thinking about this study back in October was whether people distinguish the two ongoing Clinton stories involving email — the server she used as Secretary of State, and the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta. I’ve got five dollars American that says that on average they don’t.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 10:30, December 14 || No Comments »

Moving forward: RQ3. What is journalism for?

This is admittedly not a great research question, but it’s a fundamentally important one to grounding research on the role of journalism in a mature democracy. It implies some key research questions — for example, what journalists think journalism is for, how the public understands the role of journalism, etc. — but this is conceptually a bigger question that the major institutions of the press have proven ideologically unable to grapple with.

The reason why this is so important is that an unmoored press is as likely to damage a democratic society as to serve it, and a press pointed at the wrong goals can be just as bad. The press, by which I mean the national political press, is a political institution, the only extra-governmental institution mentioned in the Constitution. But also, it doesn’t want to acknowledge that status — for example, Michael Wolff, who declared that “stenographer is what you’re supposed to be” after receiving criticism for a feckless interview with Steve Bannon, recently mocked the idea that journalism is necessarily political as a “millennial view.” Instead, the press defines itself by its reflexive ideology — that is, getting between two conflicting poles as much as possible. In an electoral campaign, that bipolar structure is essentially a given.

Placing itself conspicuously in the middle makes things very easy, and is why we have so much “he said/she said” journalism. But it also detaches the press from the idea that it plays its own unique role in our democracy. As such, journalists become predisposed to disclaim any actual impact on things that tilt toward one pole or the other. Thus they can claim at the same time that they successfully informed the public about, for example, Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest, and that the choices they made didn’t affect the outcome of the election — or in other words: “Media reported all the terrible things that make us angry about him. Voters didn’t care.”

2016wordcloudThe enormous newshole modern news organizations have to fill makes it trivial to say you’ve “reported” or “covered” something. What we know looking at the aggregate is that the Clinton email server story received three times as much network TV coverage as all policy issues combined during 2016; all that reporting can be factually correct and still present an incorrect picture to the public. To wit, the incredible word cloud based on Gallup’s summer surveys, mapping things respondents had recently heard about the candidates, may be the rosetta stone of the 2016 election (n.b., “email” defined Clinton in late 2015 as well).

The need for a bipolar structure also manifests in other important ways. Jay Rosen has written recently about what he calls “accusation-based” vs. “evidence-based” reporting. Though he was reacting to coverage of Trump’s false claim of millions of illegal votes being cast for Clinton, it was a story that fit cleanly into the press’s campaign season mindset — a partisan makes an accusation, they report it, counter-partisans respond, and they report that. It is fundamentally detached — to use another Rosen term, a “view from nowhere.” The problems with this are self-evident: If you know your claims will be repeated credulously by the press, you have no incentive not to lie like crazy. It’s especially insidious in a context like this one, whereby democratic principles come to be seen through the zero-sum lens of partisan politics.

But strangely, we can also see the press react to a unipolar environment with more willingness to be adversarial. In mid-November, we saw a mini boom of stories addressing Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and, indeed, nascent pre-inauguration corruption. These stories were known during the campaign and could just as easily have been front-paged then; they weren’t, in part because Clinton didn’t make specific campaign issues of them.

In all these situations, the press is taking an effectively nihilistic approach, as reflected quite clearly in the centrist consensus that Jonathan Chait critiques in his David Brooks-focused assessment of the mainstream, establishment opinion press. But the unmoored desires of Brooks and his peers to put themselves in the center regardless of its location isn’t a symptom of our times — see The Washington Post’s Paul Taylor from 1990:

Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.

There are a million more places I could take this, but it’s meant to be a philosophical question/blog post, and not a book. So I’m going to lay down some normative markers that I think ought to guide a period of introspection for major American press institutions:

The question then becomes, in light of these factors, what means ought the press use to achieve its ends? To be sure, major news organizations are facing institutional challenges for which they have few answers: traditional revenue streams evaporating, historically low levels of trust from the public, loss of their gatekeeping oligopoly. But they also face challenges to which they have simply failed to adapt: How to handle a president-elect who doesn’t need you, and who broadcasts lies on a regular basis? How to respond quickly to new information with both context and clarity, rather than stenography (for example, to claims from Trump that he is “handing off” his business)? How to incorporate an understanding of the potential effects of news on public opinion, as well as the value of “partisans” in the news ecosystem? These questions all have to do with the press’s willingness to stand as its own democratic institution, rather than primarily a reflexive one — a sun, rather than a moon. Without sunshine, this is where we are:

Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:59, December 1 || No Comments »

Moving forward: RQ2. How do we know what Facebook affects?

“Trump didn’t win because of X” has become a popular genre of punditry in the last two and a half weeks, along with any number of declarations backed up by little or no specific data.[1] In the wake of concern about “fake news” and partisan echo chambers online, fed by both Russian intelligence and American hoaxsters, Facebook (and social media more broadly) has become the focal point. Keith Hampton and Eszter Hargittai make this point, but like most such analyses, don’t have data specific to actual voters; instead, they note that the demographics of Trump support are negatively correlated with social media use, and that most people don’t click through from headlines in their Facebook feeds.

But this sort of supposition ignores a range of ways that we know information filters through even pre-Internet social networks, let alone the supercharged networking that is the core function of Facebook. The point here is not to say that Facebook did or didn’t do anything, but that stitching together population-level generalities is not going to provide anything like compelling evidence.

So how do we figure out what Facebook affected, if anything, and how it did it? It’s important to have some handle on what we mean here, because no what matter we do there are going to be lots of variables tangled up in a mess of colinearity. We also need to note that getting a look at actual Facebook content is difficult to impossible, but the online environment presents a lot of problems along these lines. Survey respondents might be able to recall how frequently they visited a major source; can they recall whether or not they ever read something from one of the minor partisan sources that use Facebook as their primary distribution platform?

If actual content is out, we’re going to need to contextualize Facebook use. One way to do this is at the model level, putting Facebook use for news into an mediation model with other media use, and online and offline political discussion. Some co-authors and I have a paper in development that takes one approach to this, essentially wrapping an online version of the communication mediation model in a Facebook-based container. We find no direct effects of Facebook news use on any outcomes outside of Facebook, but significant indirect effects running through links to other media and discussion behaviors. This sort of thinking also suggests examining the relationship of Facebook shares to prominence in other media, and especially major partisan media. Facebook may act as a conduit for stories that bubble up from 4chan, Reddit, or Twitter to make their way to Fox News and conservative talk radio, for example.

Understanding potential Facebook effects at the individual level requires understanding individuals within their network contexts, as both senders and receivers of information. This helps us get at the central complicating factor of measuring Facebook’s effects, which is that everyone’s Facebook experience is different. Unlike a measurement of how often one watches network news broadcasts, for example, just asking for Facebook use frequency tells us basically nothing. However, what if we also knew something about people’s networks? In a survey this would be imperfect self-reported data, but we could ask questions about political homogeneity of one’s network, along with things like tendency to engage with agreeing or disagreeing others. An interaction term between frequency of Facebook use for news and network homogeneity would give us a measure of Facebook as a filter bubble or echo chamber; putting that in a model with reflection, elaboration, and talk would start us toward a model of how a variety of influences affect individuals’ attitudes. I have another paper in progress that utilizes an interaction term like this, and one problem with it is that it’s basically an impossible measure to validate. But that’s a problem for another day!

[1] This is especially weird given the ultimate closeness of the election. Anything that could have cost Clinton 100,000 total votes across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin could be said to be the reason Trump won. The existence of multiple “but for” causes doesn’t make any single one invalid.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:32, November 26 || No Comments »

Moving forward: RQ1. Who were the mediated voters?

I love blogging, but it’s obviously not the right medium for me. I’m going to try to rectify that with this series of short posts using the chaos that currently ensnares us to develop some research questions for 2017 and beyond. Some of them are strongly journalism-focused, others about campaign organization, some about information systems. I’m going to dig at the necessary research designs a bit, but I’m not thinking too much here about doability; this is more about what we should be figuring out.

The first one came to mind reading this New York Times piece on voters and non-voters, and primarily black ones, in Milwaukee County:

“We went to the beach,” said Maanaan Sabir, 38, owner of the Juice Kitchen, a brightly painted shop a few blocks down West North Avenue, using a metaphor to describe the emotion after Mr. Obama’s election. “And then eight years happened.”

All four barbers had voted for Mr. Obama. But only two could muster the enthusiasm to vote this time. And even then, it was a sort of protest. One wrote in Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The other wrote in himself.

This sort of voter profile piece is a staple of post-election reporting, particularly when a candidate under or overperforms in an unexpected way, and is presented as a way to understand the broader scope of what happened in the election. At the same time, this piece managed to find just one reluctant Clinton voter in a city that cast 76% of its votes for her (“…as did many others here” is how the story puts it). This genre existed during the campaign as well, as noted frequently by Eric Boehlert of Media Matters for America:

In general, I understand the media’s desire to try to explain what’s driving the support for Trump, who’s obviously running a highly unusual campaign and marketing his run in openly bigoted language. For a lot of people that’s deeply troubling, so understanding the dynamic behind Trump represents an obvious story of interest.

What I’m baffled by is the media’s corresponding lack of curiosity about examining Clinton voters. After all, she has accumulated more votes than any other candidate this year and is leading a Democratic surge into key states. (Why hasn’t The New Yorker published an 8,000-word piece on why Virginia has turned into a deeply blue state over the last decade?)

And I’m not alone in noting the year’s long-running disparity. Journalism professor and Clinton supporter Jeff Jarvis recently admonished the media (emphasis in original): “I never hear from voters like me who are enthusiastic supporters. I never see reporters wading among eager backers at Clinton rallies to ask them how much they like her and why.”

So the question here is a simple one: Do the voters and areas presented in mainstream press profiles represent the actual electorate that votes in the election? If not, in what ways is the presentation biased? Some of these are fairly obvious — the view of Trump as a weird insurgent, at best, or a danger to the republic, at worst, make for a Man Bites Dog story regardless of what else is going on. However, “Former First Lady becomes first ever woman to win major party nomination” is also an unusual story. Projected swing states seem likely to have gotten more attention, but the Democratic movement of Arizona and Georgia is also compelling.

This sort of study would’ve been much easier to do 20 years ago. Identifying what qualifies as the national political press in 2016 is a study on its own, and then figuring out how to find all the relevant profile pieces from, for example, CNN.com is another extensive piece of work. The difficulty of systematic sampling and the breadth of how profiles are presented suggests a qualitative approach may be the most sensible, but any comparison with real election results will need more precision than that. Assuming we find a way through the sampling process, the work is a little easier. Coding for candidate support, enthusiasm, location, history, available demographic information, and anything else that helps form a picture of the voters being profiled can be aggregated up to a model of what the mediated electorate looks like. It’s very possible there aren’t enough data points available to do a true statistical analysis, but I think that capturing the picture in the coverage is really the goal of a study like this.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 7:39, November 23 || No Comments »

Sources of information, salience and novelty, and belief reversion

In this year’s MAPOR panel, Ken Blake’s presentation looked at belief that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and Doug Hindman talked a bit about right-wing denial of the September unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both issues are good example cases for a phenomenon that we might call belief reversion.

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Filed: Super Special Questions || 19:51, November 23 || No Comments »

Belief gaps are knowledge gaps moderated by group norms

At MAPOR on Friday, we had another terrific session dealing with the belief gap and extremes in partisanship — a direct follow-up to the belief gap session we had in 2011. We were fortunate enough to get the entire set of participants back together, and had a big audience and a good discussion at the end.

Closing out the panel, Doug Hindman presented a nice overview of how knowledge gaps and belief gaps differ, which is really a narrow set of fairly subtle characteristics. He began his presentation by noting that he’s come more and more to see belief gaps as a particular kind of knowledge gap. Specifically, these are instances where the “knowledge” deals with politically disputed information, and where partisan elites (Doug mentioned “elected officials,” but I think we need to be able to include people like, for example, Rush Limbaugh here) make claims both supporting or denying that knowledge. Consistent with Zaller’s work on elite cuing, we should (and do) see partisans — particularly stronger and more educated partisans — taking up the incorrect beliefs put forth by their partisan elites.

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Filed: Super Special Questions || 9:25, November 20 || 2 Comments »

Structure and cosmetics

Matt Yglesias has a solid post summing up something he’s been harping on quite a bit lately — the strange obsession of Washington elites with a fantasy, “centrist” president. The main point he makes — that we already have a decidedly centrist president, and that a “non-partisan” replacement for Obama wouldn’t change anything in terms of policy — is the most salient one on this particular topic. All of the pining for Mike Bloomberg, Lincoln Chaffee or whomever the third-party flavor of the month is rests on the fervent and mistaken belief that Barack Obama’s agenda is that of a socialist revolutionary.

But the secondary point that Yglesias makes is actually the more broadly interesting one:

The main difference, as far as I can see, is that getting executive branch nominees confirmed would be much more difficult for a nonpartisan president. Essentially every nominee would be greeted with overwhelming hostility from all quarters as Senators seek leverage points to influence executive branch policy.

It’s boring, and it’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s true that most of the structural-institutional problems with the federal government can be traced back to the Senate, either in its existence or its design. This is just one example — the president has to go to the Senate, hat in hand, to get a significant portion of his administration staffed. Add the filibuster to the mix, and you’re left with a situation in which 41 senators can decide that they don’t like an executive agency and that it can’t have a director, no matter what. The routine deployment of filibuster threats and anonymous holds also means that standard-issue legislation requires a supermajority in the Senate to pass, and the Constitutional design of the upper house drastically overrepresents small states in both Congress and the electoral college.

Many of the problems caused by the Senate are things that the public dislikes — it increases horsetrading and bickering, and makes it more difficult to pass even minor legislation. But would it be possible to get rid of the Senate? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you could get 67 senators to vote for a Senate-abolishing Constitutional amendment and that the biggest hurdle came from the general public. I doubt anyone’s ever polled support for abolishing the Senate, but in the wake of the 2000 election, there was never a time when abolishing the electoral college even enjoyed support at the level of Al Gore’s popular vote total — that is, at the time when such a move should’ve been at its most popular, even some of the voters who got screwed by this institutional anachronism still didn’t want to get rid of it. I wonder whether this reaches back to the way civic education works here, with an emphasis in both formal schooling and informal norms on reverence for the Constitution. Even though it’s totally stupid in 2011, the Senate is a central part of how American government operates, and it appears that the public is much more likely to see and judge individual political actors than the largely invisible institutions that restrict them.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 16:29, July 31 || 2 Comments »

Red brick, green brick

An abandoned brick building near Choteau and 14th in St. Louis. Photo by Bill Keaggy.

A while back, I read that brick buildings in St. Louis were being burned down so that the bricks could be stripped, shipped south and sold:

But the blaze, one of 391 fires at vacant buildings in the city over the past two years, may have had a more sinister cause. Law enforcement officials, politicians and historic preservationists here have concluded that brick thieves are often to blame, deliberately torching buildings to quicken their harvest of St. Louis brick, prized by developers throughout the South for its distinctive character.

“The firemen come and hose them down and shoot all that mortar off with the high-pressure hose,” said Alderman Samuel Moore, whose predominantly black Fourth Ward has been hit particularly hard by brick thieves. When a thief goes to pick up the bricks after a fire, “They’re just laying there nice and clean.”

Driving through downtown yesterday I found myself thinking about this, because downtown St. Louis is littered with abandoned, bombed-out warehouses and factories made of this same brick. There are a lot of them, butting right up against attractions such as Busch Stadium, and they are a significant source of blight in the area. To the extent that St. Louis has a crime problem (and it does), these big, empty buildings aren’t helping make things better.

Presumably somebody owns these properties and pays property taxes on them, or the city owns them. Either way, if this St. Louis brick is in high-enough demand to warrant burning houses down to steal it, why not tear these things down and sell the brick? They’re in no shape to move new businesses in anyway — if something were going to happen in these buildings they’d need near-total renovation. Perhaps there’s a good answer to this, but I’m not sure what it might be.


Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:44, June 1 || No Comments »