media

“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.

Why is “La La Land” so popular among Mormons?

The New York Times (here) has maps (chloropleths, if you want to show off your vocabulary) showing the popularity of the nominees for best picture. The maps look like different countries. “Fences,” for example, did best in the Southern swath from Louisiana to North Carolina but nowhere else except for Allegheny County, PA (it was filmed in Pittsburgh, where the story is set). In those same areas, “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea” basically don’t exist. The maps of “Fences” and “Arrival” look like direct opposites.

The map that puzzled me was “La La Land.” It’s big in LA, of course (like “Fences” in Pittsburgh). But its other strongholds are counties with a high proportion of Mormons: Utah plus Mormonic counties in neighboring states – Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.

The maps match even for distant counties in Missouri and Virginia, where those dark spots on the map might indicate only 5-10% of the population. Most counties in the US are below 3%.

How to explain the “La La Land” – Latter Day Saints connection? The movie is rated PG-13, but so are “Fences,” “Arrival,” and “Lion.” And “Hidden Figures” is PG. But then, the cast of “La La Land” has very few non-Whites and zero aliens. That might have something to do with it.

Or maybe it’s just because Ryan Gosling grew up with seriously Mormon parents. He is no longer a Mormon and says he never really identified as one. He has long since left the church. He is neither a singer nor a dancer but has to sing and dance in this film. His character is supposed to be a jazz purist, but the music he plays is what you might call Utah jazz (one of the great oxymorons of our time). But those minor quibbles mean little compared with the fact the for the first years of his life, he was raised as a Mormon.

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

The 2020 Summer Olympics will be held in Japan.  And when the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, made this public at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he did so in an interesting way.   He was standing atop a giant “warp pipe” dressed as Super Mario.  I’m trying to imagine the U.S. equivalent.  Can you imagine the president of the United States standing atop the golden arches, dressed as Ronald McDonald, telling the world that we’d be hosting some international event?

Prime minister Abe was able to do this because Mario is a cultural icon recognized around the world.  That Italian-American plumber from Brooklyn created in Japan is truly a global citizen. The Economist recently published an essay on how Mario became known around the world.

Mario is a great example of a process sociologists call cultural globalization.  This is a more general social process whereby ideas, meanings, and values are shared on a global level in a way that intensifies social relations.  And Japan’s prime minister knew this.  Shinzo Abe didn’t dress as Mario to simply sell more Nintendo games.  I’m sure it didn’t hurt sales.  In fact, in the past decade alone, Super Mario may account for up to one third of the software sales by Nintendo.  More than 500 million copies of games in which Mario is featured circulate worldwide.  But, Japan selected Mario because he’s an illustration of technological and artistic innovations for which the Japanese economy is internationally known.  And beyond this, Mario is also an identity known around the world because of his simple association with the same human sentiment—joy.  He intensifies our connections to one another.  You can imagine people at the ceremony in Rio de Janeiro laughing along with audience members from different countries who might not speak the same language, but were able to point, smile, and share a moment together during the prime minister’s performance.  A short, pudgy, mustached, working-class, Italian-American character is a small representation of that shared sentiment and pursuit.  This intensification of human connection, however, comes at a cost.

We may be more connected through Mario, but that connection takes place within a global capitalist economy.  In fact, Wisecrack produced a great short animation using Mario to explain Marxism and the inequalities Marx saw as inherent within capitalist economies.  Cultural globalization has more sinister sides as well, as it also has to do with global cultural hegemony.  Local culture is increasingly swallowed up.  We may very well be more internationally connected.  But the objects and ideas that get disseminated are not disseminated on an equal playing field.  And while the smiles we all share when we connect with Mario and his antics are similar, the political and economic benefits associated with those shared smirks are not equally distributed around the world.  Indeed, the character of Mario is partially so well-known because he happened to be created in a nation with a dominant capitalist economy.  Add to that that the character himself hails from another globally dominant nation–the U.S.  The culture in which he emerged made his a story we’d all be much more likely to hear.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Late last year Covergirl announced a new spokesmodel, a 17-year-old named James Charles. Their Instagram announcement currently boasts over 53,000 likes, though the comments on the post were decidedly mixed. They ranged from “I will never buy another (coverGIRL) because of this” to  “love love love” and “the world is coming to equality and acceptingness.”

In my circles, the overwhelming response was enthusiasm. Charles’ ascendance to Covergirl status was evidence that gender flexibility was going mainstream. And, I suppose it is.

I am always suspicious, though, of corporate motives. Covergirl’s decision to feature Charles does serve to break down the gender binary, but it does other things, too. Most notably, if makeup companies could convince boys and men that their product is as essential for them as it is for girls and women, it would literally double the size of their market.

That this hasn’t happened yet, in fact, is evidence of the triumph of gender ideology over capitalism. Either companies have decided that there’s (almost) no market in men or men have resisted what marketing has been applied. It’s an impressive resistance to what seems like an obvious expansion. There’s just no money in men thinking their faces look just fine as they are; the fact that we’ve allowed them to do so thus far is actually pretty surprising when you think about it.

If Covergirl had its way, though, I have no doubt that it would make every 17-year-old boy in America into a James Charles. Such a change would contribute to breaking down the gender binary, at least as we know it (though no doubt there are more and less feminist ways of doing this). Of course, if it was advantageous to do so, Covergirl would claim that it had something to do with feminism. But, I wouldn’t buy 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.

1To Post Secret, a project that collects personal secrets written artistically onto postcards, someone recently sent in the following bombshell: “Ever since we started getting married and buying houses,” she writes, “my girlfriends and I don’t laugh much anymore.”

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Her personal secret is, in fact, a national one.  It’s part of what has been called the “paradox of declining female happiness.” Women have more rights and opportunities than they have had in decades and yet they are less happy than ever in both absolute terms and relative to men.

Marriage is part of why. Heterosexual marriage is an unequal institution. Women on average do more of the unpaid and undervalued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage. Marriage is a moment of subordination and women, more so than men, subordinate themselves and their careers to their relationship, their children, and the careers of their husbands.

Compared to being single, marriage is a bum deal for many woman. Accordingly, married women are less happy than single women and less happy than their husbands, they are less eager than men to marry, they’re more likely to file for divorce and, when they do, they are happier as divorcees than they were when married (the opposite is true for men) and they are more likely than men to prefer never to remarry.

The only reason this is surprising is because of the torrent of propaganda we get that tells us otherwise. We are told by books, sitcoms, reality shows, and romantic comedies that single women are wetting their pants to get hitched. Men are metaphorically or literally drug to the altar in television commercials and wedding comedies, an idea invented by Hugh Hefner in the 1950s (before the “playboy,” men who resisted marriage were suspected of being gay). Not to mention the wedding-themed toys aimed at girls and the ubiquitous wedding magazines aimed solely at women. Why, it’s almost as if they were trying very hard to convince us of something that isn’t true.

But if women didn’t get married to men, what would happen? Marriage reduces men’s violence and conflict in a society by giving men something to lose. It increases men’s efforts at work, which is good for capitalists and the economy. It often leads to children, which exacerbate cycles of earning and spending, makes workers more reliable and dependent on employers, reduces mobility, and creates a next generation of workers and social security investors. Marriage inserts us into the machine. And if it benefits women substantially less than men, then it’s no surprise that so many of our marriage promotion messages are aimed squarely at them.

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.

1In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump said (my emphasis):

…our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.

Donald Trump’s insistence that we put “America First” hardly sounds harmful or irrational on its face. To be proud and protective of one’s country sounds like something good, even inevitable.  Americans are, after all, Americans. Who else would we put first?

But nationalism — a passionate investment in one’s country over and above others — is neither good nor neutral. Here are some reasons why it’s dangerous:

  • Nationalism is a form of in-group/out-group thinking. It encourages the kind of “us” vs. “them” attitude that drives sports fandom, making people irrationally committed to one team. When the team wins, they feel victorious (even though they just watched), and they feel pleasure in others’ defeat. As George Orwell put it:

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.

  • Committed to winning at all costs, with power-seeking and superiority as the only real goal, nationalists feel justified in hurting the people of other countries. Selfishness and a will to power — instead of morality, mutual benefit, or long-term stability — becomes the driving force of foreign policy. Broken agreements, violence, indifference to suffering, and other harms to countries and their peoples destabilize global politics. As the Washington Post said yesterday in its unprecedented editorial board opinion on Donald Trump, “The consequences to global security could be disastrous.”
  • Nationalism also contributes to internal fragmentation and instability. It requires that we decide who is and isn’t truly part of the nation, encouraging exclusionary, prejudiced attitudes and policies towards anyone within our borders who is identified as part of “them.” Trump has been clearly marking the boundaries of the real America for his entire campaign, excluding Mexican Americans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, and possibly even women. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted on the night of Trump’s acceptance speech:

  • A nationalist leader will have to lie and distort history in order to maintain the illusion of superiority. A nationalist regime requires a post-truth politics, one that makes facts irrelevant in favor of emotional appeals. As Dr. Ali Mohammed Naqvi explained:

To glorify itself, nationalism generally resorts to suppositions, exaggerations, fallacious reasonings, scorn and inadmissible self-praise, and worst of all, it engages in the distortion of history, model-making and fable-writing. Historical facts are twisted to imaginary myths as it fears historical and social realism.

  • Thoughtful and responsive governance interferes with self-glorification, so all internal reflection and external criticism must be squashed. Nationalist leaders attack and disempower anyone who questions the nationalist program and aim to destroy social movements. After Trump’s acceptance speech, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullers responded: “He… threaten[ed] the vast majority of this country with imprisonment, deportation and a culture of abject fear.” Anyone who isn’t on board, especially if they are designated as a “them,” must be silenced.

When Americans say “America is the greatest country on earth,” that’s nationalism. When other countries are framed as competitors instead of allies and potential allies, that’s nationalism. When people say “America first,” expressing a willfulness to cause pain and suffering to citizens of other countries if it is good for America, that’s nationalism. And that’s dangerous. It’s committing to one’s country’s preeminence and doing whatever it takes, however immoral, unlawful, or destructive, to further that goal.

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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.

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

Fake news among the alt-right has been central in post-election public discourse, like with Donald Trump’s dubiously sourced tweet about the “millions of illegal voters” supposedly driving Clinton’s substantial lead in the popular vote. Less attention, however, has been paid to the way “real” news is, to use the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson’s term, based in “factiness,” described as “the feel and aesthetic of ‘facts,’ often at the expense of missing the truth.”  Mainstream news gets cast as objective in part because journalists, stack of papers and obligatory pen studiously in hand, point to statistics that back up their reports. Such reliance on “data” can mask the way that humans are involved in turning things into numbers and numbers into stories. So here I present a cautionary tale.

It is a common truism that white male voters without college degrees disproportionately supported Trump in the 2016 election. Indeed, the notion that men with high school as their highest level of education were more likely to vote for Trump is an empirically supported fact. This data point spread widely throughout the campaign season, and bore out in the post-election analyses. But also in the post-election analyses — over which researchers poured in response to the statistically surprising result — another data point emerged that could have, but didn’t, change the narrative around this demographic voting bloc.

The data point that emerged was that white American men without college degrees have remained economically depressed since the 2008 recession and subsequent recovery. Although the U.S. economy has been steadily improving, the economic reality for this particular segment of the population has not. This is what Michael Moore talked about experientially (but not statistically), claiming that he knows the people who live in the rust belt, and they are struggling. He was right, the data show that they are struggling. Highlighting the economic reality for people without college degrees in the U.S. tells a very different story than highlighting the fact that they don’t have college degrees. The former renders an image of a voting contingent who, in the face of personal economic hardship that contrasts with national economic gain, are frustrated and eager to try something — anything — new. The latter renders an image of ignorance.

Data about education levels of voters is transformed by its coupling with economic trajectories. What’s been strange, is that although this coupling was discovered, it never really penetrated the larger “what happened” narrative. This is particularly strange given the meticulous and sometimes frantic search for explanation and the media’s public introspective quests to understand how so many got it all so wrong.

The transformative effect of the economic data point and its failure to effectively transform the story underlines two related things: data are not self-evident and narrative currents are hard to change.

The data weren’t wrong — people without college degrees were more likely to vote for Trump — but they were incomplete and in their partialness, quite misleading. That’s not a data problem, it’s a people problem. Data are not silent, but they are inarticulate. Data make noise, but people have to weave that noise into a story. The weaving process begins with survey construction, and culminates in analyses and reports. Far from an objective process, turning data into narrative entails nuanced decisions about the relevance of, and relationship between, quantifiable items captured through human-created measures. The data story is thus always value-laden and teeming with explicit and implicit assumptions.

Framing a contingent of Trump supporters through the exclusive metric of education without examining the interaction, mediating, and moderating effects of economic gains, was an intellectual decision bore out through statistical analyses. That is, pollsters, strategists, and commentators treated “lack of education” as the variable with key explanatory power. Other characteristics or experiences of those with low levels of education could/should/would be irrelevant.

Such dismissal created a major problem with regard to Democratic strategy. To situate a voting bloc as “uneducated” is to dismiss that voting bloc. How does one campaign to those voting in ignorance? In contrast, to situate a voting bloc as connected through an economic plight not only validates their position, but also gives a clear policy platform on which to speak.

But okay, after the election, analysts briefly shed light on the way that economics and education operated together to predict candidate preference. Why has this gotten so little attention? Why is education — rather than economics or the economic-education combination — still the predominant story?

The predominance of education remains because narrative currents are strong. Even when tied to newly emergent data, established stories are resistant to change. Narratives are embedded with social frameworks, and changing the story entails changing the view of reality. A key tenet of sociology is that people tend towards stability. Once they understand and engage the world in a particular way, they do social and psychological gymnastics to continue understanding and engaging the world in that way. To reframe (some) Trump voters as part of an economic interest group that has been recently underserved, is an upheaval of previous logics. Moreover, disrupting existing logics in this way forces those who practice those logics to, perhaps, reframe themselves, and do so in a way that is not entirely flattering or identity affirming. To switch from a frame of ignorance to a frame of economics is to acknowledge not only that the first frame was distorted, but also, to acknowledge that getting it wrong necessarily entailed ignoring the economic inequality that progressives take pride in caring so much about. Switching from ignorance to economics entails both a change in logic and also, a threat to sense of self.

Data are rich material from which stories are formed, and they are not objective. Tracing data is a process of deconstructing the stories that make up our truths — how those stories take shape, evolve, and solidify into fact. The “truth” about Trump voters is of course complex and highly variable. The perpetually missed nuances tell as much of a story as those on which predominant narratives hang.

Jenny L. Davis, PhD, is in the department of sociology at James Madison University. She studies social psychology, experimental research methods, and new and social media. She is also a contributing author and editor at Cyborgology.  You can follow her at @Jenny_L_Davis.