media: social media

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

Social media serves as a space where users can react to events (like the Parkland school shooting) in real time. While these conversations can be constructive, social media can also be a haven for anger and discrimination. In a recent study published in American Journal of SociologyRené Flores examined what drives online bigotry, specifically in response to new laws. Flores focuses on Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which allowed authorities to demand immigration papers from individuals they thought may be undocumented. While a strong anti-immigrant response after the law may seem to demonstrate a change in attitudes toward immigrants, Flores argues that the law spurred changes in behavior — in this case, mobilizing those with anti-immigrant attitudes to post more negative content more often.

Photo Credit: Alex Ingram, Flickr CC

Flores analyzed over 250,000 tweets posted between three months before and three months after the passage of SB 1070. Rather than sorting the tweets as positive or negative, Flores created a metric to rate the strength of sentiment in the tweets. He compared Arizona tweets to those in Nevada to measure changes specifically related to SB 1070, rather than other national or regional dynamics. After SB 1070, not only were there more anti-immigrant tweets in Arizona, but the tweets themselves were more negative. And further, Twitter users also directed negative sentiments toward non-immigrant Latinos, showing that the effect of SB 1070 was not limited to those targeted by the law.

Flores did not find evidence that neutral or pro-immigrant users changed their attitudes. Instead, users who already expressed anti-immigrant or anti-Latino biases drove the uptick in negativity. In other words, users who previously held an anti-immigrant stance posted tweets with greater negative content more frequently, at least in the immediate aftermath of the bill’s passing. This finding questions the possibility for laws to change attitudes in the short term, but demonstrates that laws can mobilize groups who already believe in the law’s sentiments.

Brooke Chambers is a PhD student in the University of Minnesota’s Sociology Department. She is interested in genocide (with a particular focus on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda), human rights, and policy formation in response to genocide and mass atrocity.

Screenshot used with permission

As I was scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago, I noticed a new trend: Several friends posted pictures (via an app) of what they would look like as “the opposite sex.” Some of them were quite funny—my female-identified friends sported mustaches, while my male-identified friends revealed long flowing locks. But my sociologist-brain was curious: What makes this app so appealing? How does it decide what the “opposite sex” looks like? Assuming it grabs the users’ gender from their profiles, what would it do with users who listed their genders as non-binary, trans, or genderqueer? Would it assign them male or female? Would it crash? And, on a basic level, why are my friends partaking in this “game?”

Gender is deeply meaningful for our social world and for our identities—knowing someone’s gender gives us “cues” about how to categorize and connect with that person. Further, gender is an important way our social world is organizedfor better or worse. Those who use the app engage with a part of their own identities and the world around them that is extremely significant and meaningful.

Gender is also performative. We “do” gender through the way we dress, talk, and take up space. In the same way, we read gender on people’s bodies and in how they interact with us. The app “changes people’s gender” by changing their gender performance; it alters their hair, face shape, eyes, and eyebrows. The app is thus a outlet to “play” with gender performance. In other words, it’s a way of doing digital drag. Drag is a term that is often used to refer to male-bodied people dressing in a feminine way (“drag queens”) or female-bodied people dressing in a masculine way (“drag kings”), but all people who do drag do not necessarily fit in this definition. Drag is ultimately about assuming and performing a gender. Drag is increasingly coming into the mainstream, as the popular reality TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been running for almost a decade now. As more people are exposed to the idea of playing with gender, we might see more of them trying it out in semi-public spaces like Facebook.

While playing with gender may be more common, it’s not all fun and games. The Facebook app in particular assumes a gender binary with clear distinctions between men and women, and this leaves many people out. While data on individuals outside of the gender binary is limited, a 2016 report from The Williams Institute estimated that 0.6% of the U.S. adult population — 1.4 million people — identify as transgender. Further, a Minnesota study of high schoolers found about 3% of the student population identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, and researchers in California estimate that 6% of adolescents are highly gender nonconforming and 20% are androgynous (equally masculine and feminine) in their gender performances.

The problem is that the stakes for challenging the gender binary are still quite high. Research shows people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary can face serious negative consequences, like discrimination and violence (including at least 28 killings of transgender individuals in 2017 and 4 already in 2018).  And transgender individuals who are perceived as gender nonconforming by others tend to face more discrimination and negative health outcomes.

So, let’s all play with gender. Gender is messy and weird and mucking it up can be super fun. Let’s make a digital drag app that lets us play with gender in whatever way we please. But if we stick within the binary of male/female or man/woman, there are real consequences for those who live outside of the gender binary.

Recommended Readings:

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

A new study tackles the media landscape building up to the election. The lead investigator, Rob Faris, runs a center at Harvard that specializes in the internet and society. He and his co-authors asked what role partisanship and disinformation might have played in the 2016 U.S. election. The study looked at links between internet news sites and also the behavior of Twitter and Facebook users, so it paints a picture of how news and opinion is being produced by media conglomerates and also how individuals are using and sharing this information.

They found severe ideological polarization, something we’ve known for some time, but also asymmetry in how media production and consumption works on either side. That is, journalists and readers on the left are behaving differently from those on the right.

The right is more insular and more partisan than the left: conservatives consume less neutral and “other side” news than liberals do and their outlets are more aggressively partisan. Breitbart News now sits neatly at the center. Measured by inlinks, it’s as influential as FOX News and, on social media, substantially more. Here’s the  network map for Twitter:

Breitbart’s centrality on the right is a symptom of how extreme the Republican base has become. Breitbart’s Executive Chairman, Steve Bannon — former White House Chief Strategist — calls it “home of the alt-right,” a group that shows “extreme” bias against racial minorities and other out-groups. 

The insularity and lack of interest in balanced reporting made right-leaning readers susceptible to fake stories. Faris and his colleagues write:

The more insulated right-wing media ecosystem was susceptible to sustained network propaganda and disinformation, particularly misleading negative claims about Hillary Clinton. Traditional media accountability mechanisms — for example, fact-checking sites, media watchdog groups, and cross-media criticism — appear to have wielded little influence on the insular conservative media sphere.

There is insularity and partisanship on the left as well, but it is mediated by commitments to traditional journalistic norms — e.g., covering “both sides” — and so, on the whole, the left got more balance in their media diet and less “fake news” because they were more friendly to fact checkers.

The interest in balance, however, perhaps wasn’t entirely good. Faris and his co-authors found that the right exploited the left’s journalistic principles, pushing left-leaning and neutral media outlets to cover negative stories about Clinton by claiming that not doing so was biased. Centrist media outlets responded with coverage, but didn’t ask the same of the right (it is possible this shaming tactic wouldn’t have worked the other way).

The take home message is: During the 2016 election season, right-leaning media consumers got rabid, un-fact checked, and sometimes false anti-Clinton and pro-Trump material and little else, while left-leaning media consumers got relatively balanced coverage of Clinton: both good stories and bad ones, but more bad ones than they would have gotten (for better or worse) if the right hadn’t been yanking their chain about being “fair.”

We should be worried about how polarization, “fake news,” horse-race journalism, and infotainment are influencing the ability of voters to gather meaningful information with which to make voting decisions, but the asymmetry between the left and the right media sphere — particularly how it makes the right vulnerable to propagandists and the left vulnerable to ideological bullying by the right — should leave us even more worried. These are powerful forces, held up both by the institutions and the individuals, that are dramatically skewing election coverage, undermining democracy, and throwing elections, and governance itself, to the right.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

“Fake news” has emerged as a substantial problem for democracy. The circulation of false narratives, lies, and conspiracy theories on self-described “alternative news” sites undercuts the knowledge voters rely on to make political decisions. Sometimes the spread of this misinformation is deliberate, spread by hate groups, foreign governments, or individuals bent on harming the US.

A new study offers information as to the content, connectedness, and use of these websites. Information scholar Kate Starbird performed a network analysis of twitter users responding to mass shootings. These users denied the mainstream narrative about the shooting (arguing, for example, that the real story was being hidden from the public or that the shooting never happened at all). Since most of the fake news sites cross-promote conspiracy theories across the board, focusing on this one type of story was sufficient for mapping the networks. Here is some of what she found:

  • The sites do not share a political point of view. They are dominated by the far right, but they also include the far left, hate groups, nationalists, and Russian propaganda sites. They did strongly overlap in being anti-globalist, anti-science, and anti-mainstream media.

  • Fake news sites are highly repetitive, spreading the same conspiracies and lies, often re-posting identical content on multiple sites.
  • Users, then, aren’t necessarily being careless or undisciplined in their information gathering. They often tweet overlapping content from several different fake news sites, suggesting that they are obeying a hallmark of media literacy: seeking out multiple sources. You can see the dense network created by this use of multiple data sources in the upper left.

  • One of the main conspiracy stories promulgated by fake news sites is that the real news is fake.
  • Believing this, Twitter users who share links to fake news sites often also share links to traditional news outlets (see the connections in the network to the Washington Post, for example), but they do so primarily as evidence that their false belief was true. When the New York Times reports the mainstream story about the mass shooting, for instance, it is argued to be proof of a cover up. This is consistent with the backfire effect: exposure to facts tends to strengthen belief in misinformation rather than undermine it.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Starbird expresses distress at her findings. “I used to be a techno-utopian,” she explained, but she is now deeply worried about the “menace of unreality.” Emerging research suggests that believing in one conspiracy theory is a risk factor for believing in another. Individuals drawn to these sites out of a concern with the safety of vaccines, for example, may come out with a belief in a Clinton-backed pedophilia ring, a global order controlled by Jews, and an aversion to the only cure for misinformation: truth. “There really is an information war for your mind,” Starbird concluded. “And we’re losing it.”

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

A girl takes a selfie, posts it to Instagram, and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long – a minute or two – before the likes and comments start rolling in. “Gorgeous,” “So pretty OMG,” “Stunning,” “Cutest.”

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You can see why people might look at this and think: narcissism. You can see why they might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

Here is a slightly edited-down excerpt of the first part of the show. As Ira Glass says, if you have teenage girls in your life, you’re probably familiar with this. I don’t and I’m not, so I found it fascinating listening. (When the girls were reading their comments, I thought one of the girls, Jane, was saying “Hard eyes,” and I couldn’t imagine why that was a compliment. Turns out, she was saying “Heart eyes.”) Here’s Ira Glass’s distillation:

They want comments from other girls. This is not about sex. It’s not about boys. It’s about girls, and friendship. And it’s very repetitive – the same phrases, over and over.

All these moves – the posting, the commenting and liking – have a meaning that girls know intuitively but that must be decoded for outsiders like me and Ira.


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Transcript:

Ira Glass: These comments are a very specific language that tells the girls all kinds of things.  And a lot of the meaning in the comments has nothing to do with the actual words. . .  It’s about who is doing the commenting . . .  Liking a photo means something totally different from commenting. You comment with someone you’re close to or someone you want to get close to.

Ella: It’s definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Jane:  Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

It’s hard to find narcissism or vanity in any of this. The girls are not preening, not basking in their triumphs, not nursing an ego wounded from some social slight. They are reading a constantly changing sociogram or network model of their world.

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Transcript:

Ira Glass:  They’re only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia:  One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn’t, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she’s, like, really good friends with, just ’cause we’re in high school and there’’s that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass:  Do you have people who you’re jealous of?

Jane: Yeah.

Julia:  Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see– like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane:  Yeah.

Julia:  Just to see, like, the whole– like, the whole social like map.

Jane:  Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who’s with who, who’s hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia:  If you didn’t have it, like, I feel like I’d be missing so much. And it would just –

Jane:    Because you wouldn’t see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass:  Well, no, that’s, I feel like, the thing that I’m understanding from this conversation, is like – it’s actually like, you’re getting a picture of your entire social world and who’s up and who’s down and who’s close to who, and it’s like you’re getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane:  Yeah.

Ella:  Yeah.

Jane:  Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass: As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella: Yeah.

Jane:  Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia:  It’s crazy.

If you look at the individual –a girl posting a selfie and reading the laudatory comments – you see a personality trait, narcissism. But the behavior that looks like narcissism is really an aspect of the social structure (girls’ friendships networks) and the institution those networks are embedded in (school).

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Last month one media behemoth, AT&T, stated it would purchase another, Time Warner, for $85.4 million. AT&T provides a telecommunications service, while Time Warner provides content. The merger represents just one more step in decades of media consolidation, the placing of control over media and media provision into fewer and fewer hands. This graphic, from the Wall Street Journal, illustrates the history of mergers for the latest companies to propose a merger:

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The purchase raises several issues regarding consumer protections – particularly over privacy, competition, price hikes, and monopoly power in certain markets – and one of these is related to race.

A third of the American population identifies as Latino, African American, Asian American, and Native American, yet members of these groups own only 5% of television stations and 7% of radio stations. Large-scale mergers like the proposed one between AT&T and Time Warner exacerbate this exclusion. Minority-owned media companies tend to be smaller and mergers make it even harder to compete with larger and larger media conglomerates. As a result, minority-owned companies close or are sold and the barriers to entry get raised as well. The research is clear: media consolidation is bad for media diversity.

After the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences committed to increasing diversity on screen and technology companies have vowed to increase their workforce diversity, but such commitments have done relatively little to improve representation. Such “gentlemen’s agreements” are largely voluntary and are mostly false promises for communities of color.

Advocacy groups and federal authorities should not rely on Memorandum of Understandings to advance inclusion goals. When the AT&T/Time Warner deal gets to the Federal Communications Commission, scrutiny in the name of “public interest” should include the issue of minorities’ inclusion in both the media and technology industries. As a diverse nation struggling with ongoing racial injustices, leaving underrepresented communities out of media merger debates is a disservice not only to those communities, but to us all.

Jason A. Smith is a PhD candidate in the Public Sociology program at George Mason University. His research focuses on race and the media. He recently co-edited the book Race and Contention in Twenty-first Century U.S. Media (Routledge, 2016). He tweets occasionally.

Modern journalism is reliant on the idea of objectivity. Even when truth is elusive, if journalists write a balanced story, they can be said to have done a good job.

But what if a story doesn’t have two sides? Sometimes journalists continue to write as if they do, as they did in regards to human caused climate change for a decade. Other times they do so wholly disingenuously, counterposing authoritative voices against ones they know carry no weight with their audience, as they did and still do with coverage of female genital cutting. At still other times, they abandon objectivity altogether, counting on a national consensus so strong that no one could possibly accuse them of being biased, as many did after 9/11.

I think this is the source of some of the discomfort with the media coverage of this election.

What does a journalist do when the editorial board of the Washington Post calls one candidate a “unique threat to American democracy”; the New York Timescalls him a “poisonous messenger” appealing to “people’s worst instincts”; the Houston Chronicle’s calls him “dangerous to the nation and the world,” a man that should “make every American shudder”; and the far-right National Review’s calls him a “menace”? What does a journalist do when conservative newspapers like the Dallas Morning News call him “horrify[ing]” and endorse a Democrat for president for the first time in almost 100 years? Is this still the right time to be objective? Is this a 9/11 moment?

I suspect that journalists themselves do not know what to do, and so we are seeing all of the strategies playing out. Some are trying hard to hew to the traditional version of balance, but covering asymmetrical candidates symmetrically makes for some odd outcomes, hence accusations of false equivalence and misinforming the public. Some are counting on a consensus, at least on some issues, assuming that things like constitutional rights and anti-bigotry are widespread enough values that they can criticize Trump on these issues without seeming partisan, but it doesn’t always work. Still others are aiming down the middle, offering an imbalanced balance, as when journalists reference the support of David Duke and other white supremacists as their own kind of dog-whistle politics.

Meanwhile, readers each have our own ideas about whether this election deserves “balanced” coverage and what that might look like. And so do, of course, the thousands of pundits, none of whom are accountable to journalistic norms, and the millions of us on social media, sharing our own points of view.

It’s no wonder the election is giving us vertigo. It is itself out of balance, making it impossible for the country to agree on what objectivity looks like. Even the journalists, who are better at it than anyone, are failing. The election has revealed what is always true: that objectivity is a precarious performance, more an art than a science, and one that gains validity only in relation to the socially constructed realities in which we live.

It’s just that our socially constructed reality is suddenly in shambles. Post-truth politics doesn’t give us a leg to stand on, none of us can get a foothold anymore. Internet-era economic realities have replaced the news anchor with free-floating infotainment. Political polarization has ripped the country apart and the edifices we’ve clung to for stability—like the Republican Party—are suddenly themselves on shaky ground. The rise of Trump has made all of this dizzyingly clear.

We’re hanging on for dear life. I fear that journalists can do little to help us now.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

How are media sources from opposing sides of the political spectrum covering the election? Most of us have no idea. We live in a media “bubble,” one in which we usually only consume “friendly” material: news and opinion from outlets and commentators who share our lean.

At Facebook, employees followed a sample of 10.1 million users who publicly identified their political leanings. They then looked at the forces that created the bubble: (1) “ideological homophily,” the degree to which friends shared the same leanings; (2) Facebook’s algorithm, feeding you things it thinks you want to see; (3) and click-through behavior, which links were ignored and which attracted interaction.

They concluded that “individuals’ choices played a stronger role in limiting exposure” to politically diverse content than did their algorithm. (You can get the data yourself here.)

At the Wall Street Journal, you can take a look at these different media bubbles side-by-side. They frame the data as what you might see in your Facebook feed if most of your friends identify as “very liberal” or “very conservative.” More broadly, what the data represents is the use of Facebook data as an insight into the bigger media bubbles we all live in both on- and off-line.

Here’s the first four results for posts about “Barack Obama”:

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On the left you have a critical article about Obama’s light treatment of private prison corporations, but also a headline calling Donald Trump a “douchebag.” On the right you have a link to a video “banned by Obama himself” which purports to out him as an Islamist and a communist and a headline that says that Obama “gave into Sharia law.”

Liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning headlines and updates related to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton read like this:

Liberal: “Clinton surges past 270 electoral votes…”

Conservative: “After Leading by 18 Points — Hillary’s Lead Over Trump Shrinks to Margin-of-Error”

Liberal: “Reagan’s Son Says His Dad Would be ‘Humiliated’ by Trump”

Conservative: “FBI Caves: Will Hand Over Notes from Clinton Interview”

Liberal: “Fox News is the Origin Story of Trump’s Bigotry”

Conservative:”Hillary Mobilizes Illegal Army”

Liberal: “Brian Stelter Blasts Sean Hannity for Spreading Conspiracy Theories Regarding Clinton’s Health”

Conservative: “Trump Releases Bombshell Report Linking Obama and Hillary to Rise of ISIS”

You get the picture.

It’s interesting that the narrative of America being a united country is so widely promulgated by both liberal and conservative sides alike. If the politicians really want us to come together (and I doubt they do), the media isn’t helping. Granted, these are the extremes, but the sources on the side I oppose look like delusional conspiracy hubs to me, whereas I recognize many of the outlets on the side to which I lean. To me, those are “good” news sources, ones I count on. Presumably someone on the other side would feel the same about theirs and be equally horrified about mine.

The stories these different sources tell are not compatible. The “very liberal” and “very conservative” side are two wholly different worlds. It’s no wonder each side has such a difficult time understanding the other. I fear what it means about the future of our democracy.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.