Category Archives: Media

Headline of the day: Zuckerberg’s rotten riches


From the Intercept, greed trumps decency, or how the rich get richer:

Facebook Allowed Advertisers to Target Users Interested in “White Genocide” — Even in Wake of Pittsburgh Massacre

  • Earlier this week, The Intercept was able to select “white genocide conspiracy theory” as a pre-defined “detailed targeting” criterion on the social network to promote two articles to an interest group that Facebook pegged at 168,000 users large and defined as “people who have expressed an interest or like pages related to White genocide conspiracy theory.”

New ‘fake news’ tracker reveals mainstreaming


Fake news has gone mainstream, at least where the GOP’s concerned, reveals a new study based on a new real-time social tracking tool [link below].

From Oxford University:

Twenty-five per cent of content shared around US midterms is junk news, despite efforts by social media platforms to curb the problem.

Social media is now a vital platform for news consumption in the United States, particularly during important moments in political life such as elections, according to new Oxford University research.

A significant portion of US adults turn to social media platforms for news content. Given the importance of social media as a news channel, these platforms have become regular targets for coordinated efforts to spread misinformation and junk news with the aim of influencing voters.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, have discovered that the problem of junk news on Twitter and Facebook has become significantly worse in the lead-up to the US midterm elections, taking place on 6 November 2018. “The proportion of junk news in circulation has grown by 5 percentage points since the 2016 presidential elections,” says Professor Phil Howard, lead researcher on Oxford’s Computational Propaganda project. “We’re a little surprised by this finding. Facebook and Twitter have put some effort into trying to improve the quality of political news and information shared on the platforms, but it is not clear that their efforts are working.”

Approximately 25% of shared content related to the midterm elections can be classified as junk news, compared to the 19% of shared content created by professional news outlets. Less than 5% of shared content came from government agencies, experts, or the candidates themselves. This is the first time junk news has overtaken mainstream professional news content in recent studies of junk news surrounding elections globally.

Despite new initiatives by social media companies to “clean up” the junk news on their platforms, the problem is spreading into new communities. “In 2016, junk news was concentrated among President Trump’s support base and the far-right,” says researcher Nahema Marchal. “Today, junk news content is also being shared by more mainstream conservatives, reaching wider audiences than ever before. The type of rhetoric and content that used to be characteristic of a niche media ecosystem serving primarily hard-right audiences has trickled down to the mainstream.” [Emphasis added.]

Who is behind the rise of junk news? The role of external actors, such as foreign governments, are likely not significant when it comes to the US midterms. “It is domestic alternative media outlets that are dominating the political debate on social media,” says researcher Lisa-Maria Neudert. “What we are seeing is home-grown conspiracy theories and falsehoods. The problem now reaches far beyond foreign influence campaigns and extremist fringe voices. Junk news has been domesticated, and social media users have an appetite.” [Emphasis added.]

For the discerning voters interested in examining the problem of junk news in real time, the Computational Propaganda project has created the Junk News Aggregator. “This is a novel tool for studying junk news on Facebook as it happens,” says Mimie Liotsiou, researcher and creator of the Junk News Aggregator. The user-friendly Aggregator makes visible the quantity and content of junk news, as well as the level of engagement. Users can search keywords, such as candidate names and districts, to reveal what is being shared, in real time as well as up to a month in the past. “We want to shed light on the problem of junk news, and help improve the public’s media literacy. We hope to make this issue more transparent to voters, policy-makers, and tech companies.”

The research examined 2.5 million tweets and nearly 7,000 Facebook pages over a 30-day period, ending 31 October 2018. Junk news was classified as sources publishing deliberately misleading, deceptive or incorrect information, typically in an ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial fashion, and meeting a variety of criteria related to professionalism, style, credibility, bias, and counterfeiting.

Here’s a screencap of the the top part of the image aggregator page, one of several ways of parsing the feed:

Charts of the day: Electoral hopes and fears


With less than a week to go before folks head to the polls, we thought we’d look at how voters are feel about the day that will decide if Democrats win control of the House of Representatives and, perhaps, even the Senate.

If you doubt that voters are fired up, consider the findings of a new Gallup poll revealing that both parties are motivated, and at the highest levels in recent pre-election surveys:

Next, two charts from a new Pew Research Center survey focus on a dominant fear and attitudes toward the ongoing GOP efforts to block people of color from the voting booth.

First, a look at concerns over possible foreign hacking designed to sway the election outcome:

And then a look at how voters feel about efforts to make registration either automatic or easier:

Finally, from a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll of 924 adults nationwide, just how concerned are voters about the noxious rhetoric, unprecedented since the days of the 1964 Presidential battle between Republican Barry Goldwater and the eventual winner, Democratic incumbent Lyndon Baines Johnson:

And if you’re wondering just how venomous the Goldwater/Johnson battle became, consider two campaign buttons, the first from the Goldwater campaign and the second from the LBJ camp, starting with the official button for the Arizona GOP Senator:

And the response from LBJ’s camp:

But it wasn’t just buttons.

It was the Democrats who came up with the most venomous television spot, one that wouldn’t be surpassed by Republicans until 24 years later:

From the Library of Congress:

Formally titled “Peace, Little Girl,” but more commonly known as the “Daisy” ad, this famous political commercial was produced primarily by Tony Schwartz for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. Preserved from a 35mm print in the Tony Schwartz Collection by the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation.

And here’s the Republican atrocity, designed to inflame racial tensions and targeting Massachusetts Democratic Presidential campaign on behalf of the victorious George H.W. Bush, Dubya’s daddy, via the Museum of the Moving Image:

The ad was not only inflammatory; it was factually wrong, as Wikipedia rightly notes:

The original State inmate furlough program, for which convicted first-degree murderers were ineligible, was actually signed into law by Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1972. After the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that this right extended to first-degree murderers, the Massachusetts legislature quickly passed a bill prohibiting furloughs for such inmates. However, in 1976, Dukakis vetoed this bill. The program remained in effect through the intervening term of governor Edward J. King and was abolished during Dukakis’ final term of office on April 28, 1988.

The art of craft, digital screens, and a surgical fail


Terry Gilliam, the only American in the Monty Python crew, is one of our favorite directors. As the creator of such films as Twelve Monkeys, The Fisher King, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil, Time Bandits, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam offers a unique, visually complex, and often dystopian take on the existential crises of the age.

In his latest film, 2013’s The Zero Theorem, Gilliam filed a remarkable scene that captures perfectly our addiction to all those portable screens we carry, you know, the ones now proven to play a causal role in blindness due to macyular degeneration.

One scene from The Zero Theorem perfectly captures out digital addiction, and while we were unable to find a copy in English, language isn’t all that important. Just watch and you’ll see what we mean. And if you have to sprechen the Deutsch, so much the better:

But when it comes to adverse health impacts caused by our fixation on screens, their dampening effects on personal interactions and blindness may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Is our digital addiction literally handicapped surgeons?

Roger Kneebone is a trauma surgeon with eclectic interests. In addition to heading London’s Imperial College Centre for Engagement and Simulation Science, he also runs the Royal College of Music–Imperial College Centre for Performance Science.

Kneebone has just raised a major ruckus with a shocking claim, one that hints of a looming healthcare crisis.

From The Times of London:

Trainee surgeons do not have the dexterity to sew up patients because they have spent too much time in front of screens, an expert has said.

Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College London, said schools should ensure that pupils received a rounded education, including artistic subjects that forced them to use their hands.

“It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things — cutting things out, making things — that is no longer the case,” he said.

More from BBC News:

“It is important and an increasingly urgent issue,” says Prof Kneebone, who warns medical students might have high academic grades but cannot cut or sew.

>snip<

Prof Kneebone says he has seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade – which he says is a problem for surgeons, who need craftsmanship as well as academic knowledge.

>snip<

“A lot of things are reduced to swiping on a two-dimensional flat screen,” he says, which he argues takes away the experience of handling materials and developing physical skills.

Such skills might once have been gained at school or at home, whether in cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that’s broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument. Students have become “less competent and less confident” in using their hands, he says.

“We have students who have very high exam grades but lack tactile general knowledge,” says the professor.

And still more from Quartz:

We use smartphones so much, they have given way to terms like “text claw” or “cell phone elbow”—both popular names for cubital tunnel syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome—as well as “smartphone tendonitis.” That said, there is also evidence that smartphones and the requisite increase in thumb-and-finger use are making our brains work harder. That’s no help to surgeons who need the medical students lithe and supple.

While we await independent scientific verification of Kneebone’s assertion, we suspect he’s onto something.

And if he’s right, it may just be the tip of a much vaster iceberg.

Charts of the day: The secret of Trump’s success


We begin with a question and answer from Martin Longman, writing in the Washington Monthly:

How do you say that someone is a billionaire but he’s not an elite?

Well, you can say that if the billionaire talks at your level and your level is not elite. Many people might not realize that Trump is resonating with them in large part because he doesn’t use any hifalutin language that makes them feel inadequate in some way, but at least some of them are aware of this and don’t mind mentioning it as one of things about Trump that they find appealing.

Strangely, it makes them want to have a beer with him even though he doesn’t drink beer and claims to have never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. It makes them think that he understands and cares about their problems even though Trump was a millionaire by the time he was eight years old and has shown no sincere signs of caring about anyone but himself in his entire life.

It might be exasperating for college graduates, but Trump’s mangling of the English language and his fifth grade way of expressing himself has helped him form a strong bond with a lot of people who actually want a president that doesn’t challenge them intellectually.

The secret may be that Donald Trump is a man of few words, words he pounds out in endless streams of intolerance, resentment and sheer malice.

The numbers tell an interesting tale

Consider the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Formula, and the associated Automated Readability Index and the Fog Count.

Back in the 1970s, the U.S. Navy grew concerned that technical manuals used to train sailors were too complex for trainees, so they looked for ways to evaluate texts. They took the three measures and modified them after evaluating the accessibility of existing texts based on tests of recruits at four naval training facilities.

The tests went on to become so popular that they’re now integrated into software programs like Microsoft Word.

Basically, the test focus on two areas, the was actually developed for the military in the 1970s as a way to check that training materials were appropriate and could be understood by its personnel. It is used as a measurement in legislation to ensure documents such as insurance policies can be understood.

There are a number of competing algorithms. They use different approaches, but all try to do one of two things, measuring the text according to the educational grade level needed to grasp the content of a text, and a second measure, reading ease. Which sets the grade level according to nationwide statistics.

Factba.se is the free consumer version of commercial software developed by FactSquared designed to process texts, PDFs, video, and audio to and anaylze the resulting data.

They turned their skills on the verbal output of Trump and his nine memediate predecessors and discovered that Agent Orange is unique, speaking at the lowest grade level, using both the smallest vocabulary and words of the fewest syllables:

In terms of word diversity and structure, Trump averages 1.33 syllables per word, which all others average 1.42 – 1.57 words. In terms of variety of vocabulary, in the 30,000-word sample, Trump was at the bottom, with 2,605 unique words in that sample while all others averaged 3,068 – 3,869. The exception: Bill Clinton, who clocked in at 2,752 words in our unique sample.

The following graphics from the Factba.se report tell the tale.

First up, the grade level attainment needed to understand the pronouncements of fifteen consecutive Chief Executives [click on the images to enlarge]:

And next, two charts reflecting [top] the average number of syllables in words employed presidentially and [bottom] the size of the vocabularies deployed:

Our final graphic comes from Branding in a Digital Age, a presentation by Marshall Kingston, Senior Brand Manager at Tetley, the British-born, Indian owned global tea giant:

Kingston writes:

If you think that’s his natural vocabulary you’re wrong, Trump uses repetition, short sentences, he repeats himself constantly ad uses the most basic form of a word instead of nuances. Our tendency is to think that consumers are becoming more. . .well read and want the cold hard facts. But simplicity is actually more memorable, more comprehendible and more compelling to the decision processing part of our brain.

In other words, Trump is following a rule also developed, like those used to create those charts we’ve just seen, by the U.S. Navy, and more than a decade earlier, the KISS Principle, for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Some observations from academia

Then consider this, from a 7 January 2017 Washington Post story:

Trump is a “unique” politician because he doesn’t speak like one, according to Jennifer Sclafani, an associate teaching professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Linguistics.

“He is interesting to me linguistically because he speaks like everybody else,” said Sclafani, who has studied Trump’s language for the past two years. “And we’re not used to hearing that from a president. We’re used to hearing somebody speak who sounds much more educated, much smarter, much more refined than your everyday American.”

>snip<

Sclafani, who recently wrote a book set to publish this fall titled “Talking Donald Trump: A Sociolinguistic Study of Style, Metadiscourse, and Political Identity,” said Trump has used language to “create a brand” as a politician.

“President Trump creates a spectacle in the way that he speaks,” she said. “So it creates a feeling of strength for the nation, or it creates a sense of determination, a sense that he can get the job done through his use of hyperbole and directness.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an American-born Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, is an expert on bombastic authoritarianism, evident in countless academic papers and a shelf full of books on the subject [including the forthcoming Strongmen: How The Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall].

In a 4 November 2016 New Yorker interview, she compared Trump to Benito Mussolini, the vigorously verbose Il Duce:

“These people are mass marketers. They pick up what’s in the air,” Ben-Ghiat said. The film reel was to Mussolini as Twitter is to Trump. “They give the impression of talking directly to the people,” she said. They can be portentous and relentlessly self-assertive. In a way, authoritarians have to be, Ben-Ghiat explained, since they’re selling a paradox: a savior fashioned as the truest, most authentic expression of the masses. Trump summed it up baldly at the Convention: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” The authoritarian makes the contradiction fall away, like an optical illusion.

She expanded on her views in an 10 August 2016 essay she wrote for the Atlantic

Italians learned in the 1920s what Americans are learning in 2016: Charismatic authoritarians seeking political office cannot be understood through the framework of traditional politics. They lack interest in, and patience for, established protocols. They often trust few outside of their own families, or those they already control, making collaboration and relationship building difficult. They work from a different playbook, and so must those who intend to confront them.

The authoritarian playbook is defined by the particular relationship such individuals have with their followers. It’s an attachment based on submission to the authority of one individual who stands above the party, even in a regime. Mussolini, a journalist by training, used the media brilliantly to cultivate a direct bond with Italians that confounded political parties and other authority structures and lasted for 18 years.

Trump also cultivates a personalized bond with voters, treating loyalty to the Republican Party almost as an afterthought. It’s why he emphasizes the emotional content of his events—he “feels the love,” or fends off “the haters.” Early on, he introduced a campaign ritual more common in dictatorships than democracies: an oath pledging support to his person, complete with a straight-armed salute. Securing this personal bond is a necessary condition for the success of future authoritarian actions, since it allows the leader to claim, as does Trump, that he embodies the voice and will of the people.

Mussolini’s rise to power also exemplifies another authoritarian trait America has seen during this campaign: The charismatic leader who tests the limits of what the public, press, and political class will tolerate. This exploration begins early and is accomplished through controversial actions and threatening or humiliating remarks toward groups or individuals. It’s designed to gauge the collective appetite and permission for verbal and physical violence and the use of extralegal methods in policing and other realms. The way elites and the press respond to each example of boundary-pushing sets the tone for the leader’s future behavior—and that of his followers.

Implications and lessons learned

As President with strong Congressional support and a stacked Supreme Court, the real estate developer and pop culture figure has used his ill-gotten gains to forge a populist cultural phenomenon.

He grasps the art of the unifying message, spelled out in visceral barroom language, rather than the bureaucrat phrases so often mouthed by his opponents.

Trump wasn’t going to do a restructuring of the roles and hierarchies of federal agencies. No, he was vowing to drain the swap, three short syllables that were o so memorable.

Like 20th Century fascist leaders, he flies across the realm, holding rallies, selling uniforms to make his followers readily recognizable — both to themselves and to others. Instead of Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Mussolini’s Black Shirts, TrumpTrolls sport red MAGA hats. But the leaders of all three groups hail followers who beat journalists.

In a system already rigged against folks who feel power should be based in the people, rather than in corporations and financial giants and the plutocrats who reap all those ever-grander and increasingly offshored profits.

To combat Trump and the system that put him in office, the Left needs a unifying, simply yet powerfully expressed message: Public good trumps private profit, and the Americans whose labor produce so much of that wealth are entitle to a greater share.

We need to recognize that soaring economic disparities create anger and uncertainty, states of arousal that make us vulnerable to manipulation, a task made easy by website cookies, email records, telephone tracking, television sets with embedded systems to spy on viewers, omnipresent surveillance cameras — just of tools available to governments, politicians, lobbyists, and others eager to find ways to identifying and manipulating our vulnerabilities for the private profit of the privileged phew.

As skilled general and rulers of old lined realized, your worst enemy is the best teacher, and Donald J. Trump is a pedagogical prodigy for those who would only listen and learn.

How about a first simple message to Dirty Don:

Kick Him Out!

UN blasts Trump for his war on the press


Donald Trump’s war on the press comes at a time when American journalism is dying, its ranks radically thinned as giant chains, many of them owned by investment banks interested only in profit rather than community service.

He ramped up his attacks Thursday night [2 August], devoting most of the evening’s rally to a relentless attack on the Fourth Estate, as the Associated Press reports:

“Whatever happened to the free press? Whatever happened to honest reporting?” Trump asked, pointing to the media in the back of the hall. “They don’t report it. They only make up stories.”

Time and time again, Trump denounced the press for underselling his accomplishments and doubting his political rise.

>snip<

“Only negative stories from the fakers back there,” the president declared.

With each denunciation, the crowd jeered and screamed at the press in the holding pen at the back of the arena.

His assault on journalism came on the same day that two leading United Nations officials spoke out against his escalating assault on the free press.

From the United Nations:

Human rights experts denounce Trump’s attacks against media

The United Nations expert on free expression has condemned President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press, warning that the US leader’s rhetoric is eroding public trust in the media and could spark violence against journalists.

“His attacks are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and Edison Lanza, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said in a joint statement on Thursday.

Mr. Trump has labelled the media as being the “enemy of the American people,” “very dishonest” and “fake news,” the statement said. Moreover, he has accused the press of distorting democracy and spreading conspiracy theories and blind hatred.

“These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law,” the experts said, expressing concern that the attacks risk increasing targeted violence against journalists.

The experts stressed that over the course of his presidency, Mr. Trump and his administration have sought to undermine reporting that had uncovered fraud, abuse, potential illegal conduct and disinformation.

“Each time the President calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ or fails to allow questions from reporters from disfavoured outlets,” the experts continued, “he suggests nefarious motivations or animus.” However, they pointed out that not even one time was he able to show any specific reporting that was driven by untoward motivations.

“It is critical that the US administration promote the role of a vibrant press and counter rampant disinformation,” they underscored.

To this end, they urged President Trump to not only “stop using his platform to denigrate the media” but to condemn the attacks, including press threats at his own rallies.

Affirming that media attacks go beyond Mr. Trump’s language, they encouraged his administration, including the Justice Department, to “avoid pursuing legal cases against journalists in an effort to identify confidential sources,” saying that it undermines the media’s independence and blocks the public from accessing information.

The experts also appealed to the Government to “stop pursuing whistle-blowers through the tool of the Espionage Act.”

“We stand with the independent media in the United States, a community of journalists and publishers and broadcasters long among the strongest examples of professional journalism worldwide,” they asserted. “We especially urge the press to continue, where it does so, its efforts to hold all public officials accountable.”

The experts encouraged all media to act in solidarity against the efforts of President Trump to favour some outlets over others.

“Two years is two years too much, and we strongly urge that President Trump and his administration and his supporters end these attacks,” they concluded.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

As someone who’s devoted his working life to practicing the craft of journalism, we are deeply alarmed at the state of the American press.

Trump wants what any tyrant wants: A silencing of opposing voices.

And with the press now own by those seeking profit over principle, the prognosis is bleak,

The medium has a message, and it’s inequality


From Walter Benjamin to Marshall McLuhan, cultural critics have focused their attention on the impact of media as machines for the reproduction of cultural products.

It was Benjamin, that brilliant exemplar of Weimar Germany’s greatest thinkers, and a founder of the Frankfurt School, who in 1936 in his most famous essay made a seminal observation about the motion picture:

The characteristics of the film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical equipment but also in the manner in which, by means of this apparatus, man can represent his environment.

Or, as McLuhan titled the first chapter of his most famous book, The Medium is the Message.

And that begin the case, what is the message of today’s film, the medium that introduced mass audiences to the moving image, a medium shaped by corporations in search of profits in an ever-more-complicated mediascape.

Two new studies from the University of California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveal sobering new insights about the state of today’s American films, and their message is anything but inclusive, as reflected in two charts, the first from “Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity LGBT & Disability from 2007 to 2017,” and the second from “Critic’s Choice? Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Film Reviews Across 100 Top Films of 2017” [click on the images to enlarge]:

Examining the sad state of diversity on the silver screen

First up, the key findings from the report on diversity among those who make movies:

Annually, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative conducts the most comprehensive and intersectional
investigation into inequality in popular films. We catalogue every independent speaking or named character shown on screen for gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, and disability as well as a series of contextual variables across an 11-year sample spanning 2007 to 2017. We also assess inclusion behind the camera, examining gender of directors, writers, producers, and composers and the race of directors. In total, 48,757 characters and 1,100 movies have been evaluated for this report.

Key Findings

Gender. A total of 4,454 speaking characters appeared across the 100 top films of 2017, with 68.2% male and 31.8% female. This translates into an on screen gender ratio of 2.15 males to every one female. The percentage of females on screen in 2017 was only 1.9 percentage points higher than the percentage in 2007.

Only 19 stories were gender balanced across the 100 top movies of 2017. A gender-balanced cast refers to a story that fills 45% to 54.9% of the speaking roles with girls/women. The percentage of gender-balanced movies was higher in 2017 than in 2016 and 2007.

Thirty-three films in 2017 depicted a female lead/co lead. The percentage of female leads in 2017 was nearly identical to 2016 [34%] and 2015 [32%] but represents a notable increase from 2007 [20%].

Only 4 movies were driven by a woman of color. All four of these women were from mixed racial/ethnic backgrounds. This number deviates little from 2016 [3] or 2015 [3]. Thirty movies featured a male 45 years of age or older at the time of theatrical release whereas only 5 films depicted a female in the same age bracket. Only one movie was led by a woman of color 45 years of age or older across the 100 top films of 2017.

Female characters [28.4%] were far more likely than male characters [7.5%] to be shown in tight or alluring apparel, and with some nudity [M=9.6%, F=25.4%]. Females 13-20 years old were just as likely as females 21-39 years old to appear in sexy attire or with some nudity.

A total of 1,584 individuals worked above the line as directors, writers, and producers. 81.7% were male and 18.2% were female. Of 109 directors, only 7.3% were female. Only 10.1% of writers were female and 18.2% of producers.

Only 4.3% of all directors across 1,100 movies were women, with 2008 the 11-year high mark during the sample time frame. Assessing the total number of unique female directors, a full 43 women have helmed one or more top-grossing films in 11 years.

Out of 111 composers across the 100 top movies of 2017, only 1 female worked. No more than two female composers have ever been employed per year during the 11 years studied. Only 1.3% of all composers across 1,100 movies were women.

A full 43% of all speaking characters on screen were girls/women in female-directed content [8 movies]. In comparison, only 30.9% of all on screen roles were filled with girls/women under male direction.

Race/Ethnicity. Of characters with an ascertainable race/ethnicity, 70.7% were white, 12.1% Black, 4.8% Asian, 6.2% Hispanic/Latino, 1.7% Middle Eastern, <1% American Indian/Alaskan Native, <1% Native Hawaiian, and 3.9% Mixed Race or Other. Overall, 29.3% of all speaking characters were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group. In comparison to the U.S. population [38.7% underrepresented] and underrepresented movie ticket buyers [45%], film still lags behind.

Forty-three films were missing Black female characters, 64 did not include any Latinas, and 65 did not include one Asian female speaking character. In contrast, only 7 films were missing white females.

Underrepresented characters in movies from 2017 were least likely to be shown in action/adventure films [28.1%] compared to animated [34%] and comedy [35.6%] films.

Of the 109 directors in 2017, 5.5% were Black or African American. Only one of the Black or African American directors working last year was female. Of the 1,100 movies studied, only 5.2% have been helmed by a Black/African American director. Only 4 Black or AfricanAmerican women have worked in the top 100 movies in the years examined, representing less than 1% of all directors.

The percentage of Black characters in 2017 films increased by 41.8 percentage points when a Black director was behind the camera then when the film did not have a Black director. Of the speaking characters in movies from 2017 with a Black director, 18.5% were Black females, compared to just 2.5% of the speaking characters in movies without a Black director.

In 2017, 4 Asian directors helmed one of the 100 most popular movies—all of these individuals were male. This translates to 3.7% of the 109 directors working in 2017. A mere 3.1% of all directors were Asian or Asian American across 1,100 films and 11 years. Asian female directors are nearly invisible in the sample—of the three slots held by Asian women, two represent the work of Jennifer Yuh Nelson on the Kung Fu Panda films.

LGBT. A total of 4,403 characters were evaluated for apparent sexuality. Of those, 0.7% [n=31] were Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual. Over half of the LGB characters were Gay [51.6%], while 29% were Lesbian and 19.4% were Bisexual. In addition, there was not one transgender character who appeared across the 100 top movies of 2017.

There has been no change over time in the depiction of LGBT characters on screen since 2014. Out of 400 popular films from 2014 to 2017, only one transgender character has appeared.

A total of 81 films did not include one LGBT speaking character. Examining films missing LGBT females reveals that 94 movies were devoid of these characters.

Over half [58.1%] of LGB characters were male and 41.9% were female. LGB characters were
predominantly white [67.7%], while 32.3% were underrepresented. Only 8 characters of the 4,403 examined were LGB teens.

Continue reading

Quote of the day: Trump channels Richard Pryor


The great comedian famously joked about asking his wife when caught in bed with another woman “Who you gonna believe, bitch? Me? or your lying eyes?”

Donald Trump made a similar plea when speaking in Kansas City yesterday when blasting fake news, as reported by BBC News:

“Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”

Bigotry in the news: It’s been institutionalized


In our previous post, we outlined the collapse of American community journalism. Now we look at what’s happening to journalism when ownership shifts to those who only interest in the news is as a source of profit.

With the election of Donald Trump, racism has and other forms of intolerance have been given free rein, as evidence by two recent studies which should alarm us all.

First this, from the Guardian:

Terrorist attacks committed by Muslim extremists receive 357% more US press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims, according to new research from the University of Alabama. The researchers controlled for factors like target type, number of fatalities, and whether or not the perpetrators were arrested before reaching their final statistic.

Terrorist attacks committed by non-Muslims (or where the religion was unknown) received an average of 15 headlines, while those committed by Muslim extremists received 105 headlines.

The findings, which are illustrated below, were based on all terrorist attacks in the US between 2006 and 2015 according to the Global Terrorism Database. The disparity in media coverage is particularly out of sync with the reality given that white and rightwing terrorists carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Muslim extremists between 2008 and 2016.

Not all headlines have the same audience, though. Lead researcher [and criminologist — esnl] Erin Kearns explained: “We broke it down by the two different types of sources and we found that the over-coverage is much bigger among national news sources than local papers.”

[Yes, the main source of relatively more balanced coverage is precisely the one that’s most endangered, the subject of our previous post.]

Here’s the essential information in a Guardian graphic:

While crimes involving Muslims are given outsized play in American media, the opposite is true when Muslims are victims of crimes perpetrated by violent bigots. What follows is a shocking story of an attempted mass murder in the heart of the Bible Belt, reported by the Guardian.

White Fright

Program notes:

In 2015, the community of Islamberg discovered that a Tennessee minister was plotting the deadliest attack on US soil since 9/11 against their village. Why have Americans heard nothing about him, and why has the safety of their community been ignored?

On 10 April 2015, the FBI quietly arrested Robert Doggart, a white, 63-year-old Christian minister after they discovered he was plotting an attack against Islamberg, a small African American Muslim community in upstate New York.

Inspired by Fox News claims that the community was a terrorist training camp, Doggart discussed firebombing a mosque and a school in the village, and using assault rifles and a machete to murder the residents. No terrorism charges were brought against Doggart. No national news outlets covered his arrest, and one month after he was taken into custody, a judge released him on bail.

As Doggart’s case went before an all-white jury, White Fright cross-examined the US’s inconsistent system of national security, the media’s role in exacerbating terrorist threats, and the failure to protect vulnerable communities from racist attacks.

Making excuses for white mass murderers

And just as crimes by Muslims are overreported, American newspapers are making excuses for white killers denied to perpetrators who are black.

From Ohio State University:

White mass shooters receive much more sympathetic treatment in the media than black shooters, according to a new study that analyzed coverage of 219 attacks.

Findings showed that white shooters were 95 percent more likely to be described as “mentally ill” than black shooters.

Even when black shooters were described as mentally ill, the coverage was not as forgiving as it was for whites responsible for similar kinds of attacks, said Scott Duxbury, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in sociology at The Ohio State University.

“There’s a big difference in how black and white mass shooters are covered in the media,” Duxbury said.

“Much of the media coverage of white shooters framed them as sympathetic characters who were suffering from extreme life circumstances. But black shooters were usually made to seem dangerous and a menace to society.”

For example, when shooters were framed in the media as mentally ill, 78 percent of white attackers were described as being victims of society – as being under a lot of stress, for example – versus only 17 percent of black shooters.

Duxbury conducted the research with Laura Frizzell and Sadé Lindsay, also sociology doctoral students at Ohio State. Their study appears online in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

The researchers defined mass shootings as those in which four or more victims were shot in a single event, not including the perpetrator.

They used two news data sources to collect 433 media articles or transcripts about 219 randomly selected mass shootings in the United States from 2013 through 2015.

The researchers controlled for a variety of factors that could influence coverage, including the number of victims; whether any victims were women, children, family or romantic partners; whether the perpetrator committed suicide; whether the shooting took place in public; and whether the shooting was framed as gang violence.

After taking these factors into account, findings showed that whites were 95 percent more likely than blacks to be described in coverage as mentally ill. Latinos were 92 percent more likely than blacks to be described as mentally ill in media reports.

Shootings that were murder-suicides had significantly higher odds of being attributed to mental illness, as did those that occurred in public places.

But the number of victims, or whether the victims were women or children, were not related to whether the shooter was labeled as mentally ill.

The researchers identified several themes in articles that framed mass shooters as mentally ill. The most common theme – found in about 46 percent of the articles – was that the shooter was a “victim of society.” This included articles that said the shooter was “going through a lot,” was “stressed out” or “suffered abuse as a child.”

About 28 percent of articles that framed shooters as mentally ill offered testimony to the attacker’s good character, while another 21 percent said the shooting was unexpected or out of character. Another 14 percent said the shooter came from a good environment.

But these descriptions were almost always about white shooters, Duxbury said.

“Black shooters who were described as mentally ill never receive testament to their good character and the media never describe the shootings as out of character,” he said.

“And only white shooters were ever talked about as coming from a good environment.”

The researchers contrasted the coverage of two mass shooters – Josh Boren, a white man, and David Ray Conley, a black man.

“The comparison between Conley and Boren is striking. Both shooters were adult men who murdered their families. Both had a history of domestic violence and drug abuse and both had received treatment for mental illness. However, whereas the media described Josh Boren as a quiet, gentle man – a teddy bear – coverage of Conley described him as perpetually violent, controlling and dangerous,” the researchers said.

The researchers also analyzed shootings that were described as gang affiliated, because these attacks almost always involved minority shooters. Here the most consistent themes in coverage involved the criminal history of the perpetrators, their status as a public menace and the problems of the community.

These results provide a marked contrast with coverage of other mass shootings, Duxbury said.

“When the media frame a mass shooting as stemming from gang violence, they talk about the perpetrators as being perpetually violent and a menace to society,” he said.

“But when a shooting is attributed to mental illness, the media treat it as an isolated incident, or the result of the pressures on the perpetrator.”

Newspaper ownership impacts international coverage

Finally, another form of bias plays a major role in shaping how events are portrayed.

In this case, the focus of the study is international,

From “Media Ownership and News Coverage of International Conflict” by Matthew Baum of the Harvard Kennedy School and Yuri Zhukov of the University of Michigan, published earlier this year in the journal Political Communication:

[M]edia ownership drives the amount, depth and diversity of publicly-available information about international conflict. Media ownership has consolidated significantly in recent decades. In 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of the US media market. By 2012, that number had fallen to 6 companies. A similar trend prevails globally. In Australia, two companies dominate the newspaper industry, while a single company controls nearly 45% of regional radio stations. In Spain, circa 2009, five companies control more than two thirds of newspaper. In the United Kingdom, also circa 2009, three companies account for over 70% of paid newspaper circulation, and two companies control 98% of radio consumption. Four companies account for 77% of all minutes of news consumed in the UK.

Media ownership matters because parent companies exert a homogenizing effect on the coverage of their media holdings, which can leave citizens with less frequent, less policy-oriented , and less diverse information to monitor or influence their leaders’ activities, including in foreign policy. We investigate the impact of ownership on news reporting, using new article-level data on international media coverage of the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the 2001 US-led operations in Afghanistan, and the 1999 NATO-led intervention in Kosovo. . .

We find that ownership structure profoundly affects the volume and content of news coverage. Newspapers owned by the same parent company feature news of similar scope, focus and diversity. They are more likely to publish articles on foreign crises if other newspapers within the same ownership chain have recently done so; more likely to emphasize hard news issues of military operations and policymaking if their co-owned counterparts have done so; and more likely to feature topically diverse content if others in their chain have done so. However, market forces can mitigate these homogenizing ownership effects: as diverse, hard news content grows more prevalent within a newspaper’s media market, the influence of co-owned newspapers recedes. The relative strength of ownership and market effects depends on the nature of the political regime within which a newspaper operates: market pressures drive coverage to a greater extent in states with a free press, while co-ownership matters more in states lacking press freedom.

The decline and fall of American journalism


Community newspapers across the U.S. are dying, slain by a combination of greed, changing public media habits, and indifference.

We begin with a story from Monday’s BBC News:

The New York Daily News, one of the city’s two tabloid papers, is halving its editorial staff, the latest sign of trouble in the local news business. The cuts will leave the newsroom with about 40 people, according to former employees.

They come less than a year after the paper was bought by Tronc, which has a reputation for low newsroom investment.

The New York Daily News started in 1919 and has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, one of them last year.

Tronc faced backlash from staff at the Los Angeles Times, who formed a union and cast a spotlight on the cuts at Tronc-owned publications, despite high compensation going to top executives and other insiders.

Tronc is paying Merrick Ventures, a private equity firm led by Tronc’s biggest shareholder, $5m (£3.8m) a year for “management expertise and technical services”. The newspaper company, which also owns the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, subsequently sold the Los Angeles Times.

And it’s not just the Big Apple tabloid’s newsroom on the chopping block. Heads are rolling  today at the chain’s other papers,across the country, as reported by CNNMoney:

The newspaper publisher is laying off staffers at some of its other papers “today and tomorrow,” according to a Monday afternoon memo from Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn.

The announcement immediately spooked staffers at papers like The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune.

Dearborn said the cuts will not be as severe as in New York.

“The Daily News is unique in that local leadership determined a complete redesign of its structure was needed post-acquisition,” he wrote. “We do not expect reductions of this scale in any of our other newsrooms.”

“With that said, several newsrooms and business units are implementing much smaller reductions today and tomorrow to reduce expenses and contain costs,” he wrote.

But it’s not the gutting of papers that should concern a citizen in a deomiocrayc; it’s also the closing of papers by the giant chains that now control most of the nation’s community journalism.

From PBS’s Independent Lens:

In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom. With markets branching rapidly into international territories, these few companies are increasingly responsible for deciding what information is shared around the world.

There are also major news organizations not owned by the “big five.” The New York Times is owned by the publicly-held New York Times Corporation, The Washington Post is owned by the publicly-held Washington Post Company and The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times are both owned by the Tribune Company. Hearst Publications owns 12 newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as magazines, television stations and cable and interactive media.

But even those publications are subject to the conglomerate machine, and many see the “corporatizing” of media as an alarming trend. Ben Bagdikian, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of The New Media Monopoly, describes the five media giants as a “cartel” that wields enough influence to change U.S. politics and define social values.

Newspocalypse Now! in three easy graphics. . .

Three images capture the sad story of the decline and fall of community journalism.

First up is a graph by Clinton Mullins, a Twitter exec who formerly held a senior position at old school media legend Conde Nast, showing the steady decline in American newspapers:

Next, from a January Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the state of journalistic employment across all platforms:

And from the Pew Research Center, a global look at the percentages of folks who believe their media are doing very/somewhat well at reporting the news:

One could argue that new media journalists are filling some of the decline seen in print newsrooms, but we would argue that in one very critical respect they are not.

Once newspapers were mostly locally owned, and their journalists and their publishers live in the communities they served.

And most significantly , community newspapers served as platforms for democracy, since providing information for a broad range of the public reflecting wide diversity of activities and opinion and thus constituting m modern version of the ancient Greek agora, the marketplace where both business and democracy took place.

And that’s why the changing nature of media ownership is of such vital importance,

The worst of the  predators stake out their prey

There’s an increasing probability that if you’re reading a U.S. newspaper. It’s owned by that most rapacious of predators, an investment bank. One such outfit, New Media Investment Group, was created as a shell to control the assets of Gatehouse media, with 144 daily newspapers and 333 weekly newspapers in 27 states, with the New Media itself being, according to its website, “externally managed and advised by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm.” Fortress, in turn, owns everything from casinos and retirement homes to other investment firms, a mortgage company, and a railroad.

From The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts, a two-year study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media:

Much attention has been focused in recent years on the country’s largest and most revered national newspapers as they struggle to adapt to the digital age. This report focuses, instead, on the thousands of other papers in this country that cover the news of its small towns, city neighborhoods, booming suburbs and large metropolitan areas. The journalists on these papers often toil without recognition outside their own communities. But the stories their papers publish can have an outsized impact on the decisions made by residents in those communities, and, ultimately, on the quality of their lives. By some estimates, community newspapers provide as much as 85 percent of “the news that feeds democracy” at the state and local levels.

This means the fates of newspapers and communities are inherently linked. If one fails, the other suffers. Therefore, it matters who owns the local newspaper because the decisions owners make affect the health and vitality of the community

>snip<

Over the past decade, a new media baron has emerged in the United States. Private equity funds, hedge funds and other newly formed investment partnerships have swooped in to buy — and actively manage — newspapers all over the country. These new owners are very different from the newspaper publishers that preceded them. For the most part they lack journalism experience or the sense of civic mission traditionally embraced by publishers and editors. Newspapers represent only a fraction of their vast business portfolios — ranging from golf courses to subprime lenders — worth hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. Their mission is to make money for their investors, so they operate with a short-term, earnings-first focus and are prepared to get rid of any holdings — including newspapers — that fail to produce what they judge to be an adequate profit.

Here in California, Alden Global Capital — another vulture — owns the great majority of Golden State newspapers [38], accounting for an equally large majority of the readership.

Alden runs them through a shell, Digital First Media, which in turn has no less that three other shells to run their California papers. And Digital First President Joe Fuchs has his priorities, as he told a recent press conference: “Alden or any of their peers, doesn’t get involved in something to lose money.”

Alden’s capture of the California Fourth Estate and the ensuing ruthless and repeated downsizings play a leading role in the decline of California print employment reflected in this stunning graphic from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:

Alden and its principal are so vicious in their attacks on the newsrooms that a 26 March Bloomberg News report on the company carried this headline:

Imagine If Gordon Gekko Bought News Empires

The reality is even worse: This raider sinks decimated newsrooms’ revenue into bad investments.

In an 17 October 2016 report, the Poynter Foundation charted the ownership types of the top 25 newspaper companies. Those gray malignancies dramatically illustrate the metastatic grasp of investment banks in the dramatically downsized dead-tree trade where we spent the most fulfilling years of our life:

The accompanying text reveals one of many things that happens when the hedge-funders seize control:

Because they own so many newspapers, they can absorb the loss if an individual newspaper fails. If investment firms cannot sell an underperforming newspaper, they close it, leaving communities without a newspaper or any other reliable source of local news and information.

As newspapers die, large areas of the country are transformed into news deserts, counties with few or no paid reporters covering the local communities in black and white.

From Columbia Journalism Review, a look at the news deserts in the contiguous 48 states, with the palest areas representing counties with no remaining papers:

One map reminded us of another, this county-by-county reflection [Wikipedia] of the relative proportion of the winning votes for Hillary Clinton [blue] and Donald Trump [red]. The reason for the blue in the news deserts of Atizona and New Mexico is accounted for by the presence of tribal reservations:

More from an 8 April Politico report:

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn’t do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.

POLITICO’s findings — which put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context — were drawn from a comparison of election results and subscription information from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The findings cover more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level.

The results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012. Those links were statistically significant even when accounting for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, such as college education and employment, suggesting that the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.

That gives new force to the widely voiced concerns of news-industry professionals and academicians about Trump’s ability to make bold assertions about crime rates, unemployment and other verifiable facts without any independent checks. Those concerns, which initially were raised during the campaign, were largely based on anecdotes and observations. POLITICO’s analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims.

The White House declined to comment for this story, but Trump and his campaign officials have made no secret of their preference for partisan national outlets and social media to mainstream outlets of all types.

Newspaper closings lead to higher taxes

Close of local newspapers carries another cost for the impacted communities.

From “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” by three finance professors, Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame, and Chang Lee and Dermot Murphy of the University of Illinois at Chicago:

Newspapers play an important monitoring role for local governments. Other papers have shown that the loss of a local newspaper leads to worsened political outcomes in the region, and we illustrate that there are worsened financial outcomes as well. In particular, we show that long-run municipal borrowing costs increase by as much as 11 basis points following a newspaper closure, and we utilize several identification tests to show that these results are not being driven by underlying economic conditions in the region. We also show that government efficiency outcomes are substantially affected by newspaper closures. In particular, we find that government wage rates, government employees per capita, tax dollars per capita, and the likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated sales all increase following a newspaper closure. From a finance perspective, our results suggest that local newspapers are important for the health of local capital markets.

For counties that have experienced local newspaper closures, we do not expect these newspapers to return, nor do we think that they should, per se. Online news outlets are fundamentally changing the way that people consume news, and they are very likely to remain the dominant source for news consumption. However, these paradigm-shifting news outlets do not necessarily provide a good substitute for high-quality, locally-sourced, investigative journalism. In the long-run, perhaps an equilibrium will be reached in which these online-based organizations contract out work to local reporters and tailor their news to the local areas. In 2009, former Baltimore Sun reporter and famous television producer David Simon stated the following: “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore Zoning Board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium.” We concur, and our evidence suggests that economic growth at the county level will be better off in that equilibrium.

Just how much a paper’s closure costs local taxpayers whe n their government seeks bond funding is summed up in a graphic from co-author Murphy:

BLOG News bonds

The Trumpster delivers a coup de grâce

And now the biggest beneficiary of the decline of community journalism is dealing Ameirca’s newspapers another deadly blow, forcing papers to cut back even more, writes veteran press-watcher Ken Doctor noted in a March report for the Nieman Lab:

Now the battle is heating up on Capitol Hill over tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on Canadian groundwood paper earlier this year.

The tariffs increase the cost of newsprint by as much as 30 to 35 percent, though the impact on publishers is highly uneven, with some chains in better shape and the dwindling independents most at risk. The predictable impacts already in motion: more newsroom layoffs, thinner (and reshaped) print products, fewer Sunday preprints, and an overall further diminishing of the value proposition newspapers are offering their readers.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will reduce its printing days from seven to five next month. The Nevada Appeal in Carson City, Nevada, moves from seven to just two days, while its parent cuts frequency on three adjacent papers.

Within the industry, there’s talk of “dropping Mondays” and replacing print editions with e-editions on other days as well. It looks as if newsprint tariffs will force more publishers to take the path Advance Publications first took six years ago, swapping daily print for digital.

And so it goes. . .

We started in print journalism doing volunteer reporting for a Colorado mountain daily, beginning with a byline and photo on the front page banner story of the 9 November 1964 San Luis Valley Courier, heading next to Arizona for a $50-a-week gig in Arizona at the weekly Winslow Mail, moving next to Nevada and hitch as crime, civil rights, poverty, and radical politics reporter [the last three beats by our own devising and the first such beat assignments in the history of Silver State journalism] on the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal — then as now the state’s dominant newspaper.

Our next job was back in Arizona, where we’d spent 30 days covering schools and general for the Tucson Daily American, a newspaper with the temerity to close before we got our second paycheck.

After starting our journalism addiction at 7600 feet above sea level, our first California gig put us om the Pacific Coast, two blocks from the beach at the Oceanside Blade-Tribune. The town’s main industry was the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, where Vietnam War-bound jarheads got their field training before they headed out to combat.

The next newspaper gig was in another coastal town at the superb family owned Santa Monica Evening Outlook, the finest job we ever held. Then it was on to the Sacramento Bee, the dominant and then only newspaper covering the capital city of the nation’s most populous state.

Our final newspaper job was at the Berkeley Daily Planet, the California city that gave rise to the legendary Free Speech Movement.

Of those newspapers, the Winslow Mail, Tucson Daily American, Oceanside Blade-Tribune, Santa Monica Evening Outlook, and the Berkeley Daily Planet were owned by families or individuals and have folded, vanishing from front porches and newsstands, their communities left without local news produced by committed journalists who, despite by their own inevitable personal biases, work hard to fairly and accurately report differing views.

Each of the communities they once served has become a news desert.

How Trump could cause a 21st Century witch hunt


Way back when esnl was an undergrad majoring in anthropology, one of our professors relentlessly hammered in one point: People are territorial group animals just like chimpanzees, our closest primate cousins [the bonobo hadn’t be recognized yet as a separate species even closer to us than chimps].

We also know that violence breaks out among chimps when resources are scarce and groups come into conflict.

We’ve also learned that humans who see themselves and their groups under threat can respond in those same primal ways.

And history teaches us that demagogues with dark agendas can exploit those same instincts to enhance their own positions of power by targeting popular anger towards the weak and those readily distinguishable from our own groups.

Some of our first television memories, after we got one of the first sets in town when we were six years old, was of the Army/McCarthy hearings, when a right wing demagogue in the Senate who had built a career out of whipping up fear of communists finally past the point of no return.

And now, with Donald Trump in the Whoite House the stage may be set for another witch hunt, writes Peter Neal Peregrine, Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies at Lawrence University in this essay for The Conversation, an open-source academic journal written in everyday English:

As an anthropologist, I know that all groups of people use informal practices of social control in day-to-day interactions. Controlling disruptive behavior is necessary for maintaining social order, but the forms of control vary.

How will President Donald Trump control behavior he finds disruptive?

The question came to me when Trump called the investigation of Russian interference in the election “a total witch hunt.” More on that later.

Ridicule and shunning

A common form of social control is ridicule. The disruptive person is ridiculed for his or her behavior, and ridicule is often enough to make the disruptive behavior stop.

Another common form of social control is shunning, or segregating a disruptive individual from society. With the individual pushed out of social interactions – by sitting in a timeout, for example – his or her behavior can no longer cause trouble.

Ridicule, shunning and other informal practices of social control usually work well to control disruptive behavior, and we see examples every day in the office, on the playground and even in the White House.

Controlling the critics

Donald Trump routinely uses ridicule and shunning to control what he sees as disruptive behavior. The most obvious examples are aimed at the press. For example, he refers to The New York Times as “failing” as a way of demeaning its employees. He infamously mocked a disabled reporter who critiqued him.

On the other side, the press has also used ridicule, calling the president incompetent, mentally ill and even making fun of the size of his hands.

Trump has shunned the press as well, pulling press credentials from news agencies that critique him. Press Secretary Sean Spicer used shunning against a group of reporters critical of the administration by blocking them from attending his daily briefing. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shook off the State Department press corps and headed off to Asia with just one reporter invited along.

Again, the practice cuts both ways. The media has also started asking themselves if they should shun Trump’s surrogates – such as Kellyanne Connway – in interviews or refuse to send staff reporters to the White House briefing room.

Accusations of witchcraft

Witches persecuted in Colonial era. Library of Congress.

But what happens when informal means of control don’t work?

Societies with weak or nonexistent judicial systems may control persistent disruptive behavior by accusing the disruptive person of being a witch.

In an anthropological sense, witches are people who cannot control their evil behavior – it is a part of their being. A witch’s very thoughts compel supernatural powers to cause social disruption. If a witch gets angry, jealous or envious, the supernatural may take action, whether the witch wants it to or not. In other words: Witches are disruptive by their very presence.

When people are threatened with an accusation of witchcraft, they will generally heed the warning to curb their behavior. Those who don’t are often those who are already marginalized. Their behavior – perhaps caused by mental disease or injury – is something they cannot easily control. By failing to prove they aren’t a “witch” – something that’s not easy to do – they give society a legitimate reason to get rid of them.

Continue reading

Republicans vote to kill your last internet privacy


The Senate voted to kill it, the House will soon pass it, and Trump will sign it.

After all, there’s no corner of your life corporations shouldn’t be able to exploit, right?

Right?

From the New York Times:

Republican senators moved Thursday to dismantle landmark internet privacy protections for consumers in the first decisive strike against telecommunications and technology regulations created during the Obama administration, and a harbinger of further deregulation.

The measure passed in a 50-to-48 vote largely along party lines. The House is expected to mirror the Senate’s action next week, followed by a signature from President Trump.

The move means Verizon, Comcast or AT&T can continue tracking and sharing people’s browsing and app activity without permission, and it alarmed consumer advocates and Democratic lawmakers. They warned that broadband providers have the widest look into Americans’ online habits, and that without the rules, the companies would have more power to collect data on people and sell sensitive information.

“These were the strongest online privacy rules to date, and this vote is a huge step backwards in consumer protection writ large,” said Dallas Harris, a policy fellow for the consumer group Public Knowledge. “The rules asked that when things were sensitive, an internet service provider asked permission first before collecting. That’s not a lot to ask.”

The privacy rules were created in October by the Federal Communications Commission, and the brisk action of Congressional Republicans, just two months into Mr. Trump’s administration, foreshadowed a broader rollback of tech and telecom policies that have drawn the ire of conservative lawmakers and companies like AT&T, Verizon and Charter.

Headline of the day: Gullible’s Travails


From the London Daily Mail:

Joke’s on them! White House promotes column about ‘Trump’s budget makes perfect sense’… not realizing it’s vicious satire

  • White House newsletter included link to Washington Post column on Friday
  • ‘Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why’
  • But a read beyond that headline reveals the piece is vicious satire 
  • ‘All schoolchildren will be taught by an F-35 wearing a Make America Great Again hat,’ Post opnion writer Alexandra Petri pens in zany extended riff
  • Embarrassed White House removes link to satirical column
  • ‘This is 2017 in a nutshell: You start with what you think is obviously a joke, and then a few days later it is being sent out from the White House,’ writes Petri

CIA spooks only doing what corporations do


Following up on our previous post; there’s this from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice:

Don’t say we didn’t warn you about this one: your “smart” TV may be spying on you. Really.

According to classified documents leaked this week, the CIA found a way to hack the microphone on televisions equipped with voice control and send the audio back to headquarters. It can even record in “Fake-Off” mode – when the TV looks like it’s off but isn’t, according to notes on project “Weeping Angel.”

See, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Way back in 2014, we noticed a rather ominous waring in the novella-length privacy policy that came with our new smart TV: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.”

That news was bad enough, creating a big privacy problem thanks to the so-called “third-party doctrine,” a legal artifact of the pre-Internet age. It basically means you don’t have any privacy in the data you send through third parties like Google or Apple – or Samsung. We’re looking at you too, Amazon Echo.

Now, it appears the CIA has found a way to exploit this vulnerability directly. And it’s a safe bet they’re not the only ones.

To be clear, there is a big difference between tapping a phone line, bugging a hotel room, and breaking the internet – or in this case, the Internet of Things. And sometimes a cliché is worth repeating: this may be a means to an end, but it’s a hell of a means.

(Pro tip: You don’t have to connect your smart TV to the internet.)

We would also note that here at esnl, we’ve also covered the privacy threat from your television, and video game controllers as well,

That bottom line is that technology has rendered privacy virtually [pun intended] obsolete.

Chart of the day: How the CIA can spy on you


From Agence France Presse, which reports that the founder of Wikileaks said there more revelations to come, but he’s staying mum till tech companies can see what’s coming:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday accused the CIA of “devastating incompetence” for failing to protect its hacking secrets and said he would work with tech companies to develop fixes for them.

“This is a historic act of devastating incompetence, to have created such an arsenal and then stored it all in one place,” Assange said.

“It is impossible to keep effective control of cyber weapons… If you build them, eventually you will lose them,” Assange said.

Assange was speaking in a press conference streamed live from Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he has been living as a fugitive from justice since 2012.

He said his anti-secrecy website had “a lot more information” about the Central Intelligence Agency’s hacking operation but would hold off on publishing it until WikiLeaks had spoken to tech manufacturers.

CIA hackers in Germany; when TV watches you


Germans were alarmed when Edward Snowden’s NSA document dump revealed that American spies were eavesdropping on their government more intensely than was the case elsewhere in Europe, and the latest WikiLeaks dump reveals that their compatriots at the CIA may be busy in Germany doing much the same.

And they might be watching them through their big screen TVs.

From Der Spiegel:

WikiLeaks says the CIA has its own cyberwar division and that around 200 experts belonging to the division are able to infiltrate computers around the world using tools specifically developed to steal data. The CIA hackers work at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, WikiLeaks says, but adds that the agency maintains at least one base outside of the United States.

The documents indicate that the CIA hacking experts are also active in the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt, Germany, the largest American consulate in the world. According to WikiLeaks documents, the consulate grounds also house a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, a building that is only accessible to CIA agents and officers from other U.S. intelligence agencies. These digital spies apparently work independently of each other in the facility so as not to blow their cover.

There are apparent references in the documents to trips taken to Frankfurt by these CIA hacking experts, complete with what passes for humor in the intelligence agency: “Flying Lufthansa: Booze is free so enjoy (within reason),” one of the documents reads. There is advice for ensuring privacy in the recommended hotels: “Do not leave anything electronic or sensitive unattended in your room. (Paranoid, yes but better safe than sorry.)”

One of the tools described in the documents, codename “Weeping Angel,” is specifically designed for hacking into Samsung F8000-Series smart televisions. According to the document, CIA agents are able to switch the televisions into “Fake Off,” which fools their owners into thinking it has been switched off. But the hackers are nevertheless able to use the TV’s microphone and webcam for surveillance purposes.

How the U.S. military weaponizes video war games


Back in the 1971 a friend took us to the Stanford University campus we were taken to visit a massive mainframe computer that was probably about as powerful as the processor in today’s cell phone.

Ushered into a large , dark room, we were escorted to a man sitting in what resembled the command module of a high tech [for those days] spaceship featuring a comfortable upholstered chair positioned in front of a large black-and-white monitor

The screen displayed a solar system, and the fellow in the chair was controlling a moving objects we soon realized was a spaceship. The game was amazing, precisely the sort of thing you’d expect from a bunch of nerds with advanced degrees, with planets and sun all functioning as gravity wells that could trap the ship. Then there was that enemy ship. . .

When we got our chance to take the helm we were hooked.

But it took at 1960s mainframe to run it, so Spacewars! Was strictly a plaything for academic and corporate nerds.

It wasn’t for another 20 years that we could find a comparable home game, a Spacewars! version for the now-forgotten Vectrex home gaming system.

But the fascination of the game, which goes back to early fascination boys seem to have with playing solder, didn’t come into full blossom until 1990s, with the arrival of the first almost-realistic war games enabled by advances in hardware and software.

And once the games became realistic, they drew the attention of the Pentagon.

And therein lies the tale.

The Pentagon’s war games fascination at its costs

Two European doctoral students, Scott Nicholas Romaniuk of the University of Trento and Tobias Burgers of the Freie Universität Berlin, looked at this unique intersection of popular culture and the military/industrial complex.

They detail their findings in The Conversation, a plain language, open source, online academic  journal:

Violent video games have become embedded within American culture over the past several decades and especially since 9/11. First-person shooters, in particular, have become increasingly popular.

These games – in which players are positioned behind a gun – have turned a generation of kids into digital warriors who fight terrorists and battle alien invaders. Many play first-person shooters for pure, innocent enjoyment. Some like achieving objectives and being a part of a team. And, for others, it simply feels good to eliminate an enemy – especially someone who’s trying to harm them.

For the U.S. military, the rise of first-person shooters has been a welcome development. In recent years, the military has encouraged many of its soldiers to partake in the thrill of violent video games as a way to continue combat training, even when not on active duty. (In fact, using games to teach military tactics has been a longstanding practice in the U.S. military: Before video games, troops were encouraged to play military-themed board games.)

The games allow soldiers to take their combat roles home with them and blur their on-duty responsibilities with their off-duty, noncombat routines and lives.

But what effect have these video games had on U.S. soldiers? How accurately do they depict military life? And do they actually help recruit, train and retain troops?

From battle screen to battlefield

As part of a study, we interviewed 15 current and former members of the U.S. military who were between 24 and 35 years old to understand the role violent first-person shooter games played in their recruitment and training.

The majority of interviewees told us it was important to stay in the mindset of a soldier even when not on duty. To them, first-person shooters were the perfect vehicle for doing this.

Game preferences varied among the soldiers we interviewed, but popular titles included “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2” and “ARMA 2,” which a current member of the Army said was “one of the most hardcore assault experiences in gaming.”

Meanwhile, an Iraq War veteran described “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” as “the ultimate first-person shooter experiences ever” and “intensive and highly realistic approaches to tactical combat. The choice of attacking with stealth or unleashing an all-out frontal assault full of mayhem is yours. It’s violent, it’s chaotic, it’s beautiful.”

In this, the Iraq War veteran seems to say that video games can reflect real-life combat situations, an attitude that others share.

Altered realities

But it’s tough to make the case that games accurately simulate what a soldier’s life is really like. First, military tours of duty are not solely made up of hard-charging, chaotic battles, like those in first-person shooters. The majority of soldiers won’t participate in any full-frontal combat operations.

Second – and, most importantly – in the digital world there are no legal and ethical considerations. When things go wrong, when innocent people are killed, there are no ramifications. If anything, the games warp these real-world consequences in the minds of players; in 2012, psychologists Brock Bastian, Jolanda Jetten and Helena R.M. Radke were able to use brain scans to show that playing violent video games had the potential to desensitize players to real-life violence and the suffering of others.

Continue reading

Chart of the day: Who’s reading your messages?


From Wikileaks, the relevant section of a CIA organizational chart organizational revealing the names of the agency departments with the power to hack into every aspect of your life should you come under their ever-watchful gaze:


Implants branch?

Sound the tinfoil hat alarm.

And just so you don’t get confused, here’s their official seal:

And the announcement. . .

Finally, from the announcement Wikileaks made today about their latest remarkable haul of top secret documents:

Today, Tuesday 7 March 2017, WikiLeaks begins its new series of leaks on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Code-named “Vault 7″ by WikiLeaks, it is the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.

The first full part of the series, “Year Zero”, comprises 8,761 documents and files from an isolated, high-security network situated inside the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Virgina. It follows an introductory disclosure last month of CIA targeting French political parties and candidates in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election.

Recently, the CIA lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponized “zero day” exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation. This extraordinary collection, which amounts to more than several hundred million lines of code, gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA. The archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.

“Year Zero” introduces the scope and direction of the CIA’s global covert hacking program, its malware arsenal and dozens of “zero day” weaponized exploits against a wide range of U.S. and European company products, include Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows and even Samsung TVs, which are turned into covert microphones.

Since 2001 the CIA has gained political and budgetary preeminence over the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The CIA found itself building not just its now infamous drone fleet, but a very different type of covert, globe-spanning force — its own substantial fleet of hackers. The agency’s hacking division freed it from having to disclose its often controversial operations to the NSA (its primary bureaucratic rival) in order to draw on the NSA’s hacking capacities.

By the end of 2016, the CIA’s hacking division, which formally falls under the agency’s Center for Cyber Intelligence (CCI), had over 5000 registered users and had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other “weaponized” malware. Such is the scale of the CIA’s undertaking that by 2016, its hackers had utilized more code than that used to run Facebook. The CIA had created, in effect, its “own NSA” with even less accountability and without publicly answering the question as to whether such a massive budgetary spend on duplicating the capacities of a rival agency could be justified.

In a statement to WikiLeaks the source details policy questions that they say urgently need to be debated in public, including whether the CIA’s hacking capabilities exceed its mandated powers and the problem of public oversight of the agency. The source wishes to initiate a public debate about the security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyberweapons.

Headline of the day: Hashtag #Alt-Infotaintment


From the Guardian:

Google accused of spreading fake news

Featured snippets in search function repeatedly shares false information, which can result in Google Home speakers reading out conspiracy theories as fact

Obama wiretapped me: Trump goes full Breitbart


First, the tweetstorm:

blog-trumpet

And the story, first from the New York Times:

Speculation online quickly turned to the possibility that Mr. Trump had been reading an article on the Breitbart News site or listening to the conservative radio host Mark Levin; both have embraced the theory in recent days.

The Breitbart article, published on Friday, alleged a series of “known steps taken by President Barack Obama’s administration in its last months to undermine Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, later, his new administration.”

It has been widely reported that there is a federal investigation, which began during the 2016 presidential campaign, into links between Trump associates and the Russians.

The New York Times reported in January that among the associates whose links to Russia are being scrutinized are Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s onetime campaign chairman; Carter Page, a businessman and foreign policy adviser to the campaign; and Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative who has said he was in touch with WikiLeaks before it released a trove of Democratic National Committee emails last summer.

Mr. Trump appeared on Saturday to suggest that warrants had been issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, alleging that Mr. Obama’s administration had once been “turned down by court” in its supposed efforts to listen in on conversations by Mr. Trump and his associates.

The origins: Breitbart and wingnut radio

Yep, they’re even better than Fox News!

From the Guardian:

Trump’s tweets follow claims made by the conservative radio host Mark Levin on his Thursday night show about the alleged steps taken by the Obama administration to undermine the Republican candidate’s campaign to win the White House.

The presenter called the effort a “silent coup” by the Obama administration and called for a congressional investigation into the issue. That contrasts with demands from across the US political spectrum to examine Russian interference in the presidential election.

Levin’s comments were followed up by Breitbart News, the “alt-right” website formerly run by Steve Bannon, who ran the Trump campaign and is now the president’s chief strategist.

The article stated: “The Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorisation to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign; continued monitoring the Trump team even when no evidence of wrongdoing was found; then relaxed the NSA [National Security Agency] rules to allow evidence to be shared widely within the government, virtually ensuring that the information, including the conversations of private citizens, would be leaked to the media.”

The Breitbart report references recent claims that the FBI asked the foreign intelligence surveillance court for a warrant last year to monitor members of the Trump team suspected of being in contact with Russian officials. The request for the warrant was initially rejected before being granted in October, the reports have said.

So let’s get this straight. . .

The FBI tried to get wiretaps on TeamTrump™ last year. Then when they failed in the normal federal court system, they headed to the one court that rolls over more than 99.97 percent of the time.

That the FISC granted the request was, then, hardly a surprise.

But what is noteworthy is that you only go to the FISC for a warrant in case of espionage and other national security matters.

We wonder on what grounds the regular court denied the requests. In normal criminal cases of the cases that require the FBI’s participation, wiretap subpoenas allow recordings of conversations between specific individuals named in an FBI agent’s sworn affidavit accompanying the wiretap request.

We’ve never covered the FISC, but in other jurisdictions, state and federal, documentation of wiretaps becomes public once the wiretap authorization ends.

But because the application was moved to the FISC, a whole different set of rules apply. Because the court deals in state secrets and the court itself is closed to public access, almost all of what happens there stays classified.

Trump may be correct in asserting his campaign offices were wiretapped, but unless he was named in the affidavit, any conversations he had would not have been monitored or recorded. If he was named, then an FBI agent was willing to go on record stating that the Bureau suspected him of involvement in criminal behavior.

We await further developments with interest.