1894 newspaper illustration by Frederick Burr Opper, Library of Congress via Wikimeida commons

The election of President Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 ushered in an era of attacks on the media and accusations that outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing “fake news.” But what exactly is “fake news”? And why are claims about information, misinformation, and disinformation in American journalism so troubling?

TSP has previously published articles summarizing scholarly concerns about fake news–in particular, its role in the political polarization phenomenon. Media scholars also now see these trends as part of a larger, longer-term crisis of democracy itself, beginning sometime in the final decades of the 20th century.

In spite of all of these questions and controversies, one thing is clear: there is no consensus on what exactly fake news is. The definition of fake news is unclear to many Americans. According to a 2018 study from The Media Insight Project, there are several understandings of what “fake news” really means to Americans nationwide:  

  • 71% of Americans think fake news is “made-up stories from news outlets that don’t exist”
  • 63% think fake news refers to “media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors”
  • 62% think it means “journalists from real news organizations making stuff up” 
  • 43% think fake news refers to news organizations making sloppy mistakes
  • 25% call satire or comedy about current events fake news
Audiences play a key role in interpreting the news and acting on it — or not. Pew Research Center data shows 68 percent of American adults say that they get their news on social media even though 57 percent of them expect the news they see on social media to be “largely inaccurate.” Academic studies also find that “fake news” is often used by social media users to insult information shared by members of opposing political parties.  
Harvard vs. Bucknell football game. Photo by Yzukerman, Flickr CC

There is no shortage of writing on the history of college sports, especially its history of scandal. There is also plenty of writing on how big-time college sports harm both the colleges and their athletes. Books as varied as Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform, College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. The University and College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA’s Amateur Myth highlight the rise of the NCAA through and because of scandal, the enormous amounts of money flowing through college athletic departments (but not to players), and the contortions of universities to fit big-time athletics.

But athletics matter even in schools defined by their academics rather than their sports. Documents from the recent Harvard affirmative action legal case confirm prior research: even at the Ivies and at coed liberal arts colleges, athletes receive a substantial admissions bump. Articles from The Atlantic and Slate detail this bump and how it especially benefits upper-class white students. At Ivies and elite liberal arts colleges, the potential financial gain from athletics (as suspect as that might be at other schools) doesn’t make sense as the primary reason to keep sports in these schools. So what are some other reasons that American higher education institutions prioritize athletics? Here are three that sociological thinking and research can help us understand.

1.Status Networks and Peer Institutions

First, athletics helps schools signal who their peers are, both academically and athletically. Higher education in the United States didn’t develop from a master plan. It is, instead, a network and market of schools that jockey for position, carving out niches and constantly battling for status. Athletic conferences are one way that institutions establish networks, and research has found that schools within conferences come to share similar status, both athletically and academically. The Ivy League is the prime example of this phenomenon. Although “the Ivies” have come to mean a set of elite schools, the league began as simply a commitment to compete against each other on the athletic playing field. 

2. Competing for Students

Another way that colleges signal prestige is through established ranking systems, and a key part of those rankings come from measures of selectivity and the quality undergraduate students. So all colleges are competing for students — either to solidify rankings or to simply matriculate enough students for small, tuition-dependent institutions to be able to pay the bills. In Creating a Class, Mitchell Stevens points out how important athletics are to recruiting students within the competitive, small liberal arts space. He writes,

“Students choose schools for multiple reasons, and the ability to participate in a particular sport at a competitive level of play is often an important one. Because so many talented students also are serious athletes, colleges eager to admit students with top academic credentials are obliged to maintain at least passable teams and to support them with competitive facilities.”

3. Non-academic Signals in Admissions

Histories of Ivy League admissions have revealed how including athletic markers was part of establishing who belonged at the school. On the most obvious level, prominent alumni who were athletes or the parents of prospective students publicly pushed for admissions policies that would be beneficial to others like them. But more subtly, and more insidiously, having an affinity for athletics was viewed as a mark of the “Yale man,” the upper-class, Christian, future leader of the world who had the presence of mind and body to pick up new ideas and manage others. 

Athletics in colleges isn’t just a money-maker or something to keep students happy. It’s a way for colleges to recruit students, fight for status, and signal what types of students they value.

The Dishchii’ Bikoh’ Apache Group from Cibecue, Arizona, demonstrates the Apache Crown Dance. Photo by Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr CC

Originally posted October 9, 2017

In recent years,  an increasing number of Americans are celebrating Indigenous People’s Day to honor those who suffered at the hands of explorers like Christopher Columbus. Social science research helps us understand the underlying gender and racial components of colonial settlement in the United States.

In what is now the United States, Andrea Smith argues that sexual conquest — the rape of native women — was closely tied to the conquest of land. Europeans perceived the indigenous people that inhabited the Americas as uncivilized. Ideas of white civility deemed native women as hypersexual and uncontrollable, unlike white women, whose perceived purity they could not match. These ideas of native women’s sexuality allowed for European males to rape native women without consequence.
Ideas about native men’s and women’s  inferiority were also important for white men’s identities. In the U.S., white settlers believed themselves to be superior to indigenous peoples, bringing enlightenment to an empty wilderness. White, male identity was thus closely tied to the control of land and ownership of property.  
Colonizers viewed land as a metaphor for women’s subjugation. Land – similar to women – was something to be taken and possessed by European men. For example, Europeans who colonized parts of Africa referred to the continent as “virgin land.” Just as virginity was used to describe young women who are perceived as pure and untainted by sex, referring to unconquered land as “virgin” reflects the European’s beliefs that it was also pure, untainted, and ripe for European colonization.
Mural Showing Child Soldier from Iran-Iraq War, Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr CC

In 2014, Boko Haram made global headlines when militants kidnapped 276 girls from school in Nigeria. Policy makers, activists, and celebrities across the globe mobilized, calling for action to #BringBackOurGirls. But in the case of child soldiers, the moral lines are often less clear because they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators. Ex-Boko Haram fighters, including at least 8,000 children, currently face a new battle as they seek to reintegrate into civilian life despite stigma. Research on the social construction of victimhood and childhood can help us better understand child soldiers.

Ideas around morality, righteousness, and innocence of victimhood differ across time and place. In World War I, for example, soldiers who suffered from trauma were treated as weak or unpatriotic by superiors and medical professionals. In the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, humanitarian actors and mental health professionals led movements to redefine victims of violence as worthy of respectability and reverence. Characterizations of victimhood are also contrasted with perpetrators — the innocent, passive victim is defined in opposition to the active, wrong-doing perpetrator. Sociologists examine how such labels are constructed, and in practice, moral lines are rarely so clear.
Media outlets often depict child soldiers as helpless victims who are abducted and indoctrinated by militia groups. This is due to media representations of children as innocent and naive.  However, many children volunteer to enlist due to survival techniques. Thus, scholars have sought to depict child soldiers as “agentic,” rather than passive victims. While the media emphasizes the binary between childhood and adulthood, child soldiers occupy an ambiguous space between these categories. This ambiguity is the result of a child soldier being capable of extraordinary violence and simultaneously symbolizing the innocence of childhood. Scholars argue that challenges to reintegration stem from how children have been socialized into militias, as well as their young ages.

While child soldiers occupy the muddy moral grounds of victimhood, these categories remain important,  particularly for issues of restorative justice and reintegration in their communities. 


For more on victimhood across different contexts, see these TROTs:

Photo by Petr Kratochvil, PublicDomainPictures.net CC

Nearly two years after the rise of #MeToo, sexual assault and harassment continue to surface across media headlines. Whether writing about the uptick in sexual assaults or the most recent sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, the media often emphasize changes in complaints or reports of law violation. Yet, the process by which individuals learn that assault and harassment can be reported in the first place remains crucial to understanding shifting complaint levels. Sociologists of law have used legal consciousness to explain how people first perceive an act of discrimination as wrong and worthy of complaint.

Legal consciousness refers to the ways individuals make sense of law and legality within everyday contexts. Beyond its formal legal institutions and processes (such as courts), the law more generally guides how we understand what is and what is not legal. We learn about legality through legal images displayed across television, news media, films, cultural practices, and social relations. These cultural ideas of law and legality shape whether and how we come to view an act as a breach of law or a discriminatory practice. Once individuals reflect upon legality, Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey suggest that they may “engage, avoid, or resist the law and legal meanings.” But when marginalized groups experience crime and discrimination, they often have fewer resources for mobilization at their disposal.
For example, growing public awareness of workplace sexual harassment — one form of gender discrimination — has shifted attention to how women come to define unwanted sexual attention as harassment. After experiencing sexual jokes, solicitation, and sexually explicit material in the workplace, women use several frames to understand what they experienced. They may simultaneously view these incidents as forms of gender discrimination and blame themselves, brush off men’s sexual comments, downplay own their harm relative to more serious forms of harassment, or even participate in the sexual banter to bond with male coworkers. Research shows that even in incidents where women felt violated, they did not necessarily define that violation as meeting the legal definition of sexual harassment, which for them included more intrusive behaviors, such as physical contact.
Relatedly, some groups are more likely than others to define harassing workplace behaviors as sexual harassment. In particular, men and older cohorts of women who began working before sexual harassment came to public attention in the 1970s are less likely to recognize forms of unwanted sexual attention as sexual harassment. Once people are conscious of a phenomenon, they may “mobilize” the law in response. Mobilizing responses included filing a formal complaint, telling bosses/supervisors, and confiding in close friends, partners, and family members. The reactions of family and friends, in particular, often become learning moments, in which individuals come to see and define the issues they experience as legal problems.
Photo by World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Flickr CC

Recently, the Trump administration announced they would continue federal executions this coming year, despite the fact there had been no federal executions in nearly two decades. This announcement comes soon after a recent Supreme Court decision reversing Curtis Flower’s death penalty conviction for racial bias in jury selection by a Mississippi prosecutor. This is not the first case about racial bias that has made it to the Supreme Court (see: Furman v. Georgia, McCleskey v. Kemp), nor will it be the last. Social science research demonstrates racial disparities are common in death penalty cases, but racism is not the only factor.

Racial bias in jury decisions is one way black defendants are disadvantaged in capital punishment cases. Research by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney shows that white male jurors are more likely to sentence black defendants to death than women and jurors of color. These jurors often use emotion-based tactics to sway other jurors to their side — and to racially-biased outcomes.
The race of the victim — perhaps more than the race of the defendant — plays an extremely important role in the probability a defendant will face the death penalty, and the likelihood the defendant will eventually be executed. Research finds that black and Hispanic death row inmates convicted of killing white victims face a higher likelihood they will be executed than others on death row. 
Data comes from the Death Penalty Information Center and the General Social Survey. Click to enlarge
Racist histories — like the presence of lynchings — as well as a higher percentage of blacks living in the area increase the number of death sentences. Beyond race, political factors, like public support for the death penalty and Republican strength, also influence yearly executions. Other factors include national level Republican strength, presidential elections that emphasize law and order, economic inequality, and higher murder rates. Further, the presence of liberal political values may explain the absence of death sentences. 

The death penalty’s role in deterrence is contested, but its racial impact is not. Using research on racial bias, social scientists have helped change death penalty policy in the United States. A report by Katherine Beckett and colleagues played a key role in Washington’s decision to abolish the death penalty in 2018. The report found that prosecutors were significantly more likely to file a death notice in a county with a relatively large black population, and juries were 4.5 times more likely to sentence black defendants to death than defendants of other races. 

You may also be interested in a previous article: Racial and Regional Differences in Support for the Death Penalty.”

For more information and data on the death penalty, check out the Death Penalty Information Center.

Photo of a silhouette of a person holding a rifle.
Photo by Esther Vargas, Flickr CC

The Northern Triangle region of Central America — composed of the nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — is considered one of the most violent regions in the world outside of a war zone. In addition to a de facto state of war against highly organized and well-armed nonstate actors, extrajudicial killings by both the police and citizens of local gang members and criminals reveal both the ineffectiveness of state action in preventing violence and the desperation of local communities for security. Research on vigilante forms of justice in the region demonstrates how weak state institutions, like inadequate police forces, inefficient judicial systems, and corruption, can contribute to citizens taking the law into their own hands to provide justice and security in their communities.

Ineffective and inaccessible criminal justice institutions create a void that fosters mob action and vigilante justice. In Latin America, linchamientos, a form of collective vigilantism, reflect communities’ dissatisfaction with state authority and the desire to have autonomy in their own affairs. In rural Guatemala, for example, linchamientos have been considered a legacy of the nation’s brutal civil war (1960-1996). Today, they still function as a form of community justice against local criminals, due to the perceived corruption, inefficiency, and illegitimacy of official police forces.
Widespread political problems generate conditions of ‘statelessness’ in which citizens are more likely to ignore legal avenues of conflict resolution to engage in violent “self‐help.” In Guatemala and Honduras, for instance, conflicts over land have fostered a continuous cycle of violence between peasants and elites. State ineffectiveness not only incentivises citizens to take justice into their own hands, but also enables the expansion of private security, the militarization of police forces, and even alliances between vigilante groups and the state’s armies. In Mexico, when the police have fallen short of providing adequate security in the last decade, organized vigilante groups have battled powerful drug cartels. The Mexican state has assimilated these groups as a way to both expand the fight against crime and keep vigilantes under its control. 
In a number of cases in Latin America, the inability of states to provide social order, security, and justice has led citizens to take up arms and attempt to do it themselves. Just as vigilante justice can challenge the power of the state and support for democratic governance, however, confidence in law enforcement can strengthen democracy by reducing the need for extralegal justice. 
Photo by torbakhopper, Flickr CC

As candidates gear up for this week’s democratic debates, constituents continue to voice concerns about the student debt crisis. Recent estimates indicate that roughly 45 million students in the United States have incurred student loans during college. Democratic candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed legislation to relieve or cancel  this debt burden. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s congressional testimony on behalf of Warren’s student loan relief plan last April reveals the importance of sociological perspectives on the debt crisis. Sociologists have recently documented the conditions driving student loan debt and its impacts across race and gender. 

In recent decades, students have enrolled in universities at increasing rates due to the “education gospel,” where college credentials are touted as public goods and career necessities, encouraging students to seek credit. At the same time, student loan debt has rapidly increased, urging students to ask whether the risks of loan debt during early adulthood outweigh the reward of a college degree. Student loan risks include economic hardship, mental health problems, and delayed adult transitions such as starting a family. Individual debt has also led to disparate impacts among students of color, who are more likely to hail from low-income families. Recent evidence suggests that Black students are more likely to drop out of college due to debt and return home after incurring more debt than their white peers. Racial disparities in student loan debt continue into their mid-thirties and impact the white-Black racial wealth gap.
Other work reveals gendered disparities in student debt. One survey found that while women were more likely to incur debt than their male peers, men with higher levels of student debt were more likely to drop out of college than women with similar amounts of debt. The authors suggest that women’s labor market opportunities — often more likely to require college degrees than men’s — may account for these differences. McMillan Cottom’s interviews with 109 students from for-profit colleges uncovers how Black, low-income women in particular bear the burden of student loans. For many of these women, the rewards of college credentials outweigh the risks of high student loan debt.
Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun, Flickr CC

This post was created in collaboration with the Minnesota Journalism Center.

Technology has its share of perks and benefits. Past articles on The Society Pages demonstrate how artificial intelligence and technology can help enhance journalism and curb trafficking and trolling online — but scholars have also found technology has a dark side. Meredith Broussard calls it, “technochauvinism,” a belief that tech is always the solution to the world’s problems. It is a red flag, she says, because “there has never been, nor will there ever be, a technological innovation that moves us away from the essential problems of human nature.”

One of these problems is unequal access to the internet. On The Society Pages, we highlighted how access to the internet influences activism. Other research shows how access to the internet influences various societal practices including predictive policing, real estate markets, affordable housing, social services and medical care. For example, predictive policing is a developing area of inquiry. This practice has come under scrutiny for its lack of transparency and potential to assign inaccurate risk scores to individuals that may become a victim or offender in a violent crime, which can lead to the overpolicing of already marginalized areas.
Scholars have also discovered that blue-chip companies, including Google, produce search results that marginalize underrepresented populations. Further, there is fear that algorithms are writing people out of jobs. While algorithms do have the potential to write people out of jobs, different fields may experience this to various degrees. This may be true for professions including paralegals: Up to 69 percent of paralegals’ time could be automated. In the journalistic profession, reporters and editors are in better shape due to their ability to animate algorithms to their advantage: As a human-centered process, algorithms have the potential to increase reporting outputs with less human effort. But algorithms aren’t neutral — they are produced by people, and they have the potential to reproduce marginalization.
Photo by Andrew Turner, Flickr CC

On July 4th, 1776, signers of the Declaration of Independence declared their intent to “dissolve the political bands” holding the United States and Great Britain together. That subtle language quells the imagery of violent revolution — over nearly a decade of warfare, thousands died in the conflict. Today, in the midst of flags and cookouts, the violence of the revolution may yet again fade to the background. But many social scientists examine such violence deeply, and in doing so showcase the power of violence to remake identity, redraw state boundaries, and bring power to marginalized groups.

Acts of violence can redefine the boundaries of groups. During crises like civil war or political upheaval, political elites may seek to unite ethnic, racial, or religious groups to consolidate power. Threats of violence may motivate these groups, for fear or for self-protection, to mobilize. Historically, these changing groups have influenced national boundaries — indigenous groups were often targeted for violent elimination in order to conquer a space for a particular identity group, or areas were conquered to make more space for a group in power. In these ways, many of the symbolic and physical boundaries in the world around us carry traces of violence.
Violence and conflict can also create opportunities for those with limited political power. Elisabeth Jean Wood, for example, analyzed how insurgent groups of impoverished and exploited workers could use organizing and sometimes violent tactics to convince powerful leaders to negotiate, thus installing democratic governments. Marie Berry examines political power in the aftermath of conflict, showing how the participation of women in traditionally male spaces after violence enabled political organizing and gains in power. Though the extent and longevity of these changes differ between conflicts, violence and its aftermath have the capacity to result in political change.
While the transformative power of violence looks different across cases, its power doesn’t exist in a vacuum — global norms and regulations around violence often impact its destructive and constructive capacities. Today’s belligerents are often aware of laws surrounding the use of violence, like regulations about who or what can be targeted and what types of strategies are permitted. To garner favor with powerful international actors, many combatants abide by these regulations. Others abide selectively, like signing onto treaties in order to partake in other forms of violence with less oversight.

In the centuries that have passed since the revolution, many Americans now think of July 4thas a day of parades and parties, as representations of conflict have faded over time. But amongst the fireworks, social science shows the centrality of violence in national histories, international relations, and the relative power of social groups.