Posts Tagged ‘political discourse’

Civility out of context

I fielded a survey recently, and this out of context result really intrigues me. For the non-quantitative people, these are regression results that show how each variable predicts the outcome variable with all the others controlled. The outcome here is agreement with the statement, “When most Americans debate issues facing the country, they are more civil today compared to ten years ago.” I’m looking at blog use, ideology and partisanship in this study, and here are the predictive results (the ones with the footnote symbols are statistically significant):

Gender (Female) .03
Age -.05
Race (White) -.19***
Education -.11*
Income .01
Partisanship (Republican) .10†
Ideology (Conservative) -.04
Conservative Blog Use .23**
Liberal Blog Use .03
*** p < .001, ** p < .01, * p < .05, † p < .1


I’m pretty sure that the partisanship and conservative blog use results are manifestations of those individuals remembering 2001 as a time when everybody was being so mean to George W. Bush all the time. It’s likely also the reverse — Democrats seeing the current environment as severely uncivil — but the distribution of the blog use data suggests to me it’s more the former than the latter. More on this at MAPOR next month.

Filed: Science Is Real || 19:53, October 1 || 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 »

Rhetoric, truth and ontology in political debate

This may be a little disjointed, as I’ve been trying to think through a number of issues relating to the Giffords shooting and my research on partisan information flow. I’m cautiously optimistic that the broad discussion about violent rhetoric is headed in the right direction, even if it is accompanied by a considerable amount of whining about “blame.” But I still feel like we’re missing part of the point.

First, we are seriously eliding the differences between violent, angry and uncivil rhetoric. Sharron Angle’s line about “Second Amendment remedies” is a clear example of violent rhetoric; Ben Quayle saying he would “knock the hell” out of Congress is not; Alan Grayson calling his opponent “Taliban Dan” is not. But in the Washington-dominated conversation about this tragedy, this interpretation (as epitomized by MSNBC’s First Read) is on full display. Much of this concern could’ve been aired during any recent campaign without much editing — the Washington press corps and the political elites they interact with have been extremely concerned with “tone” for quite some time. Tone-based criticism has been a primary weapon against the influence of outsider-activists such as bloggers for years. That they would respond to this shooting by reprising one of their favorite tunes has me wondering just why they’re so concerned with tone and rhetoric, often to the exclusion of policy outcomes. Do political elites fixate on tone because they are both socially close to both sides of the Washington power balance and largely insulated from the outcomes of policy decisions? Could this lead them to view all political debate through this largely socially-driven lens? Ezra Klein took himself to task yesterday for suggesting during that health care debate that Joe Lieberman “was willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands to settle an old electoral score.” This was a fairly personal attack on Lieberman, and probably an unnecessary one, but the core of the criticism was correct — the ACA will save hundreds of thousands of lives. That is, it’s not just a rhetorical device, it’s a policy with real outcomes. But for both passionate supporters and opponents of the policy among political elites, the rhetorical lens is just as important.

Once they abandon their concern for policy outcomes, their ability to moderate policy debates — which ultimately lie at the core of all this rhetoric — becomes extremely suspect. If you’re more concerned with rhetoric than outcomes, should you bother evaluating the outcomes, or the logic used to predict them? We can see this playing out in any number of recent debates. Look at the death panel claim, for instance. This was a claim that received significant criticism from the Left, and even some from the Right, usually in the form of, “Palin’s claim is a bit too strong, but still….” It was used to rile up opponents of health care reform and provided a quick and easy lineage of talking points for the GOP. It was, to be sure, a heated claim — the government was coming to kill our babies and old people — and that was seen by many as a problem. But really the problem with the claim wasn’t that it was heated, but that it was false. Imagine, for a moment, that it was 100% true. Babies with Downs syndrome would have to stand before these cartoonishly named “death panels” to anxiously await a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you want somebody to scream from the rooftops, “Hey, this bill is going to allow the government to kill whomever it wants,” and do whatever they could to stop it? I would want to know that!

But it wasn’t true. Despite that, it was largely taken at face value. See also the “Ground Zero mosque,” the various fake bailouts, “Climategate” — you can even go back to Swift Boat ads of 2004, and probably well before that. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the modern Washington press corps seems to be that all sincerely held beliefs are taken on their own terms, and never directly challenged. Over the years, this has allowed us to generate not just duelling ideologies, or duelling information infrastructures, but duelling notions of reality itself. Adam Serwer notes that, “If people really believed 90 percent of what the conservative media were telling them, violence would almost be justified.” What the conservative media tell them is that, among other things, President Obama is literally setting up both a communist and an Islamic overthrow of the U.S. government. Again, the rhetoric itself needn’t be violent; it’s a heated, angry fantasy, which clearly positions a real person with real power as the ultimate villain. Serwer determines that really they don’t believe it, because we haven’t seen a violent uprising, though Digby has a list that suggests otherwise. On top of that list of actual occurrences, we can look to poll results — last August, Pew found that 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

You don’t have to be perfectly sane to start with, or a card-carrying Tea Party member to potentially be influenced by this detachment from reality. It may be enough to be in a position to let this worldview wash over you to the exclusion of truthful information. And once you’ve been so washed, there’s no reason to expect you’re going to take up arms against anyone. But this detachment does more than create an angry environment — it makes political debate impossible. If we’re going to debate the cost/benefits trade-offs of a health care reform proposal, or a stimulus bill, or a tax cut bill, etc., we have to at least have some consensus about outcomes. We don’t have to, and probably never will, agree on which trade-off is best in either the short or long terms. But if your method of debating is to toss out CBO scores you don’t like and just rely on the Laffer curve and scare tactics for everything, we will never get anywhere.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 14:11, January 11 || No Comments »

Some thoughts on violent rhetoric

In the wake of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (and the collateral murder of half a dozen others), much discussion has turned to Sarah Palin’s infamous target map, the gun-heavy campaign events held by Jesse Kelly (Giffords’s 2010 opponent) and various examples of violent campaign rhetoric that have come from candidates and opinion-leaders on the Right over the past few years. This is pretty predictable, as is the response: There’s no evidence that Jared Loughner is a Palin supporter, a Kelly supporter or a Tea Party supporter. He’s just a lone nut! Well, maybe. His seemingly insane rhetoric about grammar and mind control strongly recalls that of David Wynn Miller, a prominent figure in the far-right “sovereign citizen” movement. Maybe Miller is insane, too, but the ideology that underlies the sovereign citizen movement has popped up before.

But focusing on Palin’s map — which she ridiculously now wants to claim has “surveyor’s marks” on it — and allowing people to just dismiss Loughner as crazy misses an important, bigger point. For the past two years, conservatives have made their case primarily by stoking fear. They have repeatedly claimed that Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress are going to kill people, trash the economy, let foreign terrorists have the run of the place, etc. This isn’t an exaggeration of what they’re saying — they’ve taken the rhetoric of “genocide” from the far-right anti-abortion movement and scaled it up to their entire platform. So let’s say that Loughner is unstable, as various armchair psychiatrists have already diagnosed him as schizophrenic. A hallmark of this sort of mental illness is the perception of grand forces conspiring against you, or of someone or something being out to get you. Palin’s map is disgusting as campaign rhetoric, but it doesn’t say to an unstable person, “Hey, here’s a reason to go after this person.” But telling your followers that the government is going to pull the plug on grandma or that it’s deliberately setting murderous terrorists loose in America is different. Referring to an abortion provider as “Tiller the killer,” as Bill O’Reilly did repeatedly, is different. When that kind of rhetoric is tolerated, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone murders Dr. George Tiller, or tries to murder Democratic officials.

As much as this behavior, as well as more explicit threats — Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies,” the Tea Party’s “We Came Unarmed This Time” t-shirts — seems to be majorly cresting right now, this is part of a pattern dating back at least to early in the Clinton Administration. In 1994, both Sen. Jesse Helms (Clinton “better not show up around here [Fort Bragg] without a bodyguard”) and Rep. Bob Dornan (“The Second Amendment is…for hunting politicians, like in Grozny, and in the colonies in 1776, or when they take your independence away”) made violent threats against President Clinton. The difference then was that those comments were scandalous, and they were condemned by Republicans and media figures along with Democrats. Now, the conservative media machine allows this type of rhetoric to percolate and largely hide from the mainstream. Most of our officials and media figures now probably have little idea what’s happening in conservative social media, or even much of talk radio and Fox News; meanwhile, there’s much more of it than there was in 1994. To understand the implications of this type of violent and delegitimizing rhetoric, we first need to understand just how prevalent it is and how ingrained it has become in a particular segment of the population.

Filed: We R in Control || 16:56, January 10 || 1 Comment »