politics

During a year marked by social and political turmoil, the media has found itself under scrutiny from politicians, academics, the general public, and increasingly self-reflexive journalists and editors. Fake news has entered our lexicon both as a form of political meddling from foreign powers and a dismissive insult directed towards any less-than-complimentary news coverage of the current administration.

Paying attention to where people are getting their news and what that news is telling them is an important step to understanding our increasingly polarized society and our seeming inability to talk across political divides. The insight can also help us get at those important and oh-too common questions of “how could they think that?!?” or “how could they support that politician?!?”

My interest in this topic was sparked a few months ago when I began paying attention to the top four stories and single video that magically appear whenever I swipe left on my iPhone. The stories compiled by the Apple News App provide a snapshot of what the dominant media sources consider the newsworthy happenings of the day. After paying an almost obsessive attention to my newsfeed for a few weeks—and increasingly annoying my friends and colleagues by telling them about the compelling patterns I was seeing—I started to take screenshots of the suggested news stories on a daily or twice daily basis. The images below were gathered over the past two months.

It is worth noting that the Apple News App adapts to a user’s interests to ensure that it provides “the stories you really care about.” To minimize this complicating factor I avoided clicking on any of the suggested stories and would occasionally verify that my news feed had remained neutral through comparing the stories with other iPhone users whenever possible.

Some of the differences were to be expected—People simply cannot get enough of celebrity pregnancies and royal weddings. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN frequently feature stories that are critical of the current administration, and Fox News is generally supportive of President Trump and antagonistic towards enemies of the Republican Party.

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However, there are two trends that I would like to highlight:

1) A significant number of Fox News headlines offer direct critiques of other media sites and their coverage of key news stories. Rather than offering an alternative reading of an event or counter-coverage, the feature story undercuts the journalistic work of other news sources through highlighting errors and making accusations of partisanship motivations. In some cases, this even takes the form of attacking left-leaning celebrities as proxy to a larger movement or idea. Neither of these tactics were employed by any of the other news sources during my observation period.

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2) Fox News often featured coverage of vile, treacherous, or criminal acts committed by individuals as well as horrifying accidents. This type of story stood out both due to the high frequency and the juxtaposition to coverage of important political events of the time—murderous pigs next to Senate resignations and sexually predatory high school teachers next to massively destructive California wildfires. In a sense, Fox News is effectively cultivating an “asociological” imagination by shifting attention to the individual rather than larger political processes and structural changes. In addition, the repetitious coverage of the evil and devious certainly contributes to a fear-based society and confirms the general loss of morality and decline of conservative values.

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It is worth noting that this move away from the big stories of the day also occurs through a surprising amount of celebrity coverage.

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From the screen captures I have gathered over the past two months, it seems apparent that we are not just consuming different interpretations of the same event, but rather we are hearing different stories altogether. This effectively makes the conversation across political affiliation (or more importantly, news source affiliation) that much more difficult if not impossible.

I recommend taking time to look through the images that I have provided on your own. There are a number of patterns I did not discuss in this piece for the sake of brevity and even more to be discovered. And, for those of us who spend our time in the front of the classroom, the screenshot approach could provide the basis for a great teaching activity where the class collectively takes part in both the gathering of data and conducting the analysis. 

Kyle Green is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Utica College. He is a proud TSP alumnus and the co-author /co-host of Give Methods a Chance.

Over the last few weeks, commentary about alleged sexual predator Roy Moore’s failure to secure a seat in the U.S. Senate has flooded our news and social media feeds, shining a spotlight on the critical role of Black women in the election. About 98% of Black women, comprising 17% of total voters, cast their ballots for Moore’s opponent Doug Jones, ensuring Jones’s victory. At the same time, commentators questioned the role of White women in supporting Moore. Sources estimate that 63% of White women voted for Moore, including the majority of college-educated White women.

Vogue proclaimed, “Doug Jones Won, but White Women Lost.” U.S. News and World Reports asked, “Why do so many White women vote for misogynists?” Feminist blog Jezebel announced succinctly: “White women keep fucking us over.” Fair enough. But we have to ask, “What about Black and White men?” The fact that 48% of Alabama’s voting population is absent from these conversations is not accidental. It’s part of an incomplete narrative that focuses solely on the impact of women voters and continues the false narrative that fixing inequality is solely their burden.

Let’s focus first on Black men. Exit poll data indicate that 93% of Black men voted for Jones, and they accounted for 11% of the total vote. Bluntly put, Jones could not have secured his razor-thin victory without their votes. Yet, media commentary about their specific role in the election is typically obscured. Several articles note the general turnout of Black voters without explicitly highlighting the contribution of Black men. Other articles focus on the role of Black women exclusively. In a Newsweek article proclaiming Black women “Saved America,” Black men receive not a single mention. In addition to erasing a key contribution, this incomplete account of Jones’s victory masks concerns about minority voter suppression and the Democratic party taking Black votes for granted.

White men comprised 35% of total voters in this election, and 72% of them voted for Moore. But detailed commentary on their overwhelming support for Moore – a man who said that Muslims shouldn’t serve in Congress, that America was “great” during the time of slavery, and was accused of harassing and/or assaulting at least nine women in their teens while in his thirties – is frankly rare. The scant mentions in popular media may best be summed up as: “We expect nothing more from White men.”

As social scientists, we know that expectations matter. A large body of work indicates that negative stereotypes of Black boys and men are linked to deleterious outcomes in education, crime, and health. Within our academic communities we sagely nod our heads and agree we should change our expectations of Black boys and men to ensure better outcomes. But this logic of high expectations is rarely applied to White men. The work of Jackson Katz is an important exception. He, and a handful of others have, for years, pointed out that gender-blind conversations about violence perpetrated by men, primarily against women – in families, in romantic relationships, and on college campuses – serve only to perpetuate this violence by making its prevention a woman’s problem.

The parallels to politics in this case are too great to ignore. It’s not enough for the media to note that voting trends for the Alabama senate election were inherently racist and sexist. Pointing out that Black women were critically important in determining election outcomes, and that most White women continued to engage in the “patriarchal bargain” by voting for Moore is a good start, but not sufficient. Accurate coverage would offer thorough examinations of the responsibility of all key players – in this case the positive contributions of Black men, and the negative contributions of White men. Otherwise, coverage risks downplaying White men’s role in supporting public officials who are openly or covertly racist or sexist. This perpetuates a social structure that privileges White men above all others and then consistently fails to hold them responsible for their actions. We can, and must, do better.

Mairead Eastin Moloney is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky. 

From Pizzagate to more plausible stories of palace intrigue, U.S. politics has more than a whiff of conspiracy in the air these days. In sorting fact from fiction, why do some people end up believing conspiracy theories? Social science research shows that we shouldn’t think about these beliefs like delusions, because the choice to buy in stems from real structural and psychological conditions that can affect us all.

For example, research in political science shows that people who know a lot about politics, but also show low levels of generalized trust, are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. It isn’t just partisan, either, both liberals and conservatives are equally likely to believe conspiracy theories—just different ones.

In sociology, research also shows how bigger structural factors elevate conspiracy concern. In an article published in Socius earlier this year, Joseph DiGrazia examined Google search trends for two major conspiracy theories between 2007 and 2014: inquiries about the Illuminati and concern about President Obama’s birth and citizenship.

DiGrazia looked at the state-level factors that had the strongest and most consistent relationships with search frequency: partisanship and employment. States with higher unemployment rates had higher search rates about the Illuminati, and more Republican states had higher searches for both conspiracies throughout the Obama administration.

These studies show it isn’t correct to treat conspiracy beliefs as simply absurd or irrational—they flare up among reasonably informed people who have lower trust in institutions, often when they feel powerless in the face of structural changes across politics and the economy.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

On the Data is Beautiful subreddit, a user going by the name fencelizard recently took a look at gender differences in full-time staff salaries in the last four U.S. Presidential administrations. This is only a quick descriptive picture (notes on the methodology below), but it highlights an important point about organizations: inequality doesn’t always neatly align with ideology.

Both the wide and the narrow median pay gaps are bipartisan. While the Clinton and the early Trump administrations have the widest gaps in median earnings, the George W. Bush and Obama administrations were the closest to gender parity (the gap was not statistically significant in the Obama years).

Of course, these gaps mean different things in different administrations. The parity among Bush staffers looks like it came from pay cuts on both sides, with more men remaining in a higher salary range, while the Obama administration had a much more even distribution across men and women. Part of the pattern for the Trump administration could be due to understaffing in general.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how the salary distribution for women staffers has remained relatively consistent and lower than fluctuating salaries for men. Sociologists know that inequality can be embedded in the day-to-day operations of institutions like schools, prisons, and government offices. Bias certainly can and does play a role in this process, but the ideological support that we often associate with such biases—like political preferences—doesn’t always have to be the deciding factor for whether inequality happens.

Some background on the analysis from fencelizard:

Salary data was sourced from white house press releases for Trump (PDF tables; FML) and Obama (UTF-8 csv’s; thanks Obama), and from the Washington Post for Bush (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/administration/whbriefing/2004stafflistb.html) and Clinton (https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/11/01/salaries-at-clintons-white-house/9c96f5b6-02c5-4888-87ee-dc547d8d93f0/?utm_term=.aa70a4af1649). Supposedly full salary data for Bush I exists too, but I couldn’t find it anywhere online.
I cleaned up the data in R, used the ‘gender’ package to guess staffers’ gender from their first names, and made the plots with ggplot2 and gridExtra. I used a Wilcox test to compare the distribution of salaries across genders for each president. Asterisks in the figure above indicate significantly different distributions.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

The harrowing mass shooting in Las Vegas this week is part of a tragic pattern, and it raises big questions about how we deal with such tragedies in public life. In the face of such horror, many people rightly turn to their deep convictions for comfort and strength, and their leaders are no different. Referencing religion is a common choice for politicians, especially in troubling times. Experimental evidence shows these references draw voters in, but lately it seems like the calls for comfort may have gotten a little…rehearsed.

For a growing number of Americans, calls for “thoughts and prayers” ring especially hollow. About a fifth of the U.S. population has no religious affiliation, and new experimental research shows we may be drastically underestimating the number of atheists in the population as well. Despite these trends, we don’t often seen direct challenges to religious beliefs and practices in policy debates. Healthcare reform advocates don’t usually argue that we should keep people alive and well because “there probably isn’t an afterlife.” While the battle to legalize same sex marriage discussed the separation of church and state, we didn’t see many large advocacy groups arguing for support on the grounds that biblical claims simply weren’t true.

In lieu of prayer, calls for concrete action on gun control in the face of mass shootings are a new challenge to these cultural norms. In the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting,  the New York Daily News ran this cover:

Now, in press conferences and on the floor of Congress, more political leaders are openly saying that thoughts are prayers are not enough to solve this problem. Sociologists know that the ways we frame issues matter, and here we might be seeing a new framing strategy emerging from the gun control debate that could reshape the role of religion in American politics in the long term.

 

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

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.

Monday is Labor Day in the U.S. Though to many it is a last long weekend for recreation and shopping before the symbolic end of summer, the federal holiday, officially established in 1894, celebrates the contributions of labor.

Here are a few dozen SocImages posts on a range of issues related to workers, from the history of the labor movement, to current workplace conditions, to the impacts of the changing economy on workers’ pay:

The Social Construction of Work

Work in Popular Culture

Unemployment, Underemployment, and the “Class War”

Unions and Unionization

Economic Change, Globalization, and the Great Recession

Work and race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration

Gender and Work

The U.S. in International Perspective

Academia

Just for Fun

Bonus!

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.

Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

Why did White House advisor Stephen Miller call CNN reporter Jake Acosta “cosmopolitan”?

At the end of last week’s press briefing, Acosta asked about the Trump administration’s new proposals on immigration – reducing the total number of green cards by half and giving preference to people who are more skilled and people who speak English well.

ACOSTA:   The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country. They’re not always going to speak English.. . . Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MILLER: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.

Cosmopolitan? Acosta’s question suggests the exact opposite – provinicialism. A worldly and sophisticated person would know that countries in Asia and Africa have English as their national or dominant language and that people all over the world learn English as a second language. Only a rube would think that English proficiency was limited to Great Britain and Australia.

What did Miller mean by cosmopolitan? The question sent me back to the article that put “cosmopolitan” into the sociological lexicon – Alvin Gouldner’s 1957 “Cosmopolitans and Locals.”

 Cosmopolitans:

  • low on loyalty to the employing organization
  • high on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an outer reference group orientation

Locals: 

  • high on loyalty to the employing organization
  • low on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an inner reference group orientation.

Gouldner was writing about people in organizations. Miller is concerned with politics. The common element here is loyalty. Miller, along with Steve Bannon, engineered Trump’s “America first” doctrine, and by “cosmopolitans” he seems to mean people who are not putting America first. On immigration, people like Acosta are thinking about what might be good for an uneducated but hard-working Guatemalan, when instead they should be thinking only about what’s good for the US.

Jeff Greenfield put it this way at Politico: “It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality.”

The alt-Right has been using cosmopolitan for a while now, and perhaps it was Miller’s familiarity with White nationalist discourse that made the word so available as a put-down of Acosta even though Acosta’s question seemed based on the kind of ignorance about the world that is much respected over on the right.

Like “America first,” “cosmopolitan” has a history of holding hands with anti-Semitism. In Stalin’s Russia, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a synonym for Jew, and he murdered quite a few of them. In the US today, the antipathy to “cosmopolitan” embodies this same fear of rootlessness and the same dislike of Jews. Here is one website’s take on yesterday’s press briefing:

The twist here is that Acosta, the alleged cosmopolitan, is not Jewish, but Miller is. (The alt-Right uses the triple parentheses around a name to designate a Jew.) I don’t know how Miller resolves the dissonance other than to claim that he has never had anything to do with White nationalists (a claim that is probably false).  For the anti-Semites, the website has this:

While not a Jew himself, Acosta is the end result of the education and programming pushed by the Rootless Cosmopolitans wherever they dwell – even Stalin grew wise to them near the end of his life.

So Acosta cosmopolitanism came from being educated by Jews.

Miller and other Jews must surely understand the overtones of the term. And finally, let’s throw in a good word for Stalin: an anti-Semitic Russian autocrat – what’s not to like?

The rootless cosmopolitan on the right is from a Soviet humor magazine 1949.

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