Category Archives: Sociology

Red/Blue divide even dominates eBay commerce


If, as Abraham Lincoln so famously declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” then an academic study of trading on eBay trades reveals that we’re on very shaky ground here in the U.S.

Indeed, our biases are now so deeply embedded that out online shopping choices are based on whether the seller comes a Red state or a Blue state, according to a report from Washington University in St. Louis:

The political divide between red and blue states seems to fracture more than our views about abortion rights, tax cuts and health care. Research from an Olin Business School faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis — with midterm elections just around the corner — shows that we’re even wary about buying products online from sellers who might not share our political point of view.

An analysis of more than 550 million items sold by individuals on eBay in 2015 and 2016 — transactions totaling $22.3 billion — signals that we’re more likely to buy goods from someone we perceive comes from a similar political persuasion.

In other words, eBay buyers in Montana were more likely to buy a clock, a bookcase or a treadmill from, say, a Nebraskan than from a Californian.

“We were shocked because the location of a seller shouldn’t matter at all,” said Daniel Elfenbein, associate professor of strategy. “Shouldn’t we only care about whether the item is what we want and the likelihood of getting it sent to us as we expect?”

In fact, Elfenbein and his research colleagues Ray Fisman of Boston University and Brian McManus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discovered that the sales divide isn’t limited to the perceived political persuasion of buyers and sellers. To varying degrees, the researchers found similar trading imbalances in states based on religiosity, ethnicity and other measures of “cultural distance.”

The authors laid out the research in a working paper titled, “The Impact of Socioeconomic and Cultural Differences on Online Trade,” to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in January 2019 in Atlanta.

The researchers said the divisions persisted even when the researchers controlled for population differences among states and perceived “taste preferences” among buyers and sellers. Would Californians and Floridians be more likely to trade surf gear? Would Montanans and Texans be more likely to trade hunting equipment?

“The paper was driven by a desire to understand whether these political differences were associated with the propensity of people to do business with each other — and then to rule out other explanations,” Elfenbein said. “No matter how hard we tried to rule out the idea that these political things matter, we still saw it as driving some of the trade patterns.”

The findings suggest companies that do business across state lines should carefully consider whether their home base is meaningful for potential customers. “I would hope people in that position would have an informed opinion about whether touting their location is an advantage,” Elfenbein said. “I think marketing managers should have an informed view about whether touting their company’s location is an advantage or a disadvantage.”

Another surprise for the researchers: Buyers on eBay only know the seller’s city and state. From that, apparently, they’re extrapolating what they perceive to be the “cultural distance” between them, using that as a proxy for trustworthiness: Am I going to get what I expect to get from the seller?

The researchers did find, however, that the likelihood of giving a seller negative feedback is higher when buyers are purchasing from states where the predominant political views differ from their own. It suggests there is a tendency to be more sensitive to poor performance when they think the seller voted differently.

“There is no correlation between cultural similarity and buyer satisfaction, however, suggesting that differences in trustworthiness are not validated by actual transactions,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

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Charts of the day: Global democracy’s sad decline


The Varieties of Democracy [V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg. Sweden, tracks the status of liberal democracies around the world, charting their progress with the aid of a large poll of international experts, using a system that evaluaties each country on the basis of whether or not their governments are electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.
https://pol.gu.se/english/varieties-of-democracy–v-dem-

As their website notes, “V-Dem disaggregates these five principles into dozens of lower-level Components of Democracy such as regular elections, judicial independence, direct democracy, and gender equality.

V-Dem’s latest annual assessment, Democracy for All? V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018, contains two charts dramatically illustrate the rapid decline of democracy.

First, a global look at changes across the world:

Number of countries with significant changes on Liberal Democracy Index [right index population-weighted]

And a look closer to home at the rapid decline of American democracy in the Age of Trump:

The United States’ ranking on the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index fell from seven in 2015 to 31 in 2017. There is clear evidence of autocratization on several indicators. The lower quality of liberal democracy stems primarily from weakening constraints on the executive.

Now get out and vote, dammit!

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:

Chart of the day: Far Right’s religious murders soar


America’s rising cycle of home-grown Far Right homicidal violence increasingly focuses on members of religious minorities, and a new graphic from The Conversation dramatically illustrates the rising role of faith in the selection of homicidal violence by White Supremacists and other fanatics of the sort empowered by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with the body count including Muslims, Jews, Christians [specifically, those with darker skins], Unitarians, and Sikhs [click on the image to enlarge]:

Map of the day: A European Muslim divide


Long, long ago, back when esnl was covering civil rights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a frequent response from white folks when asked about darker-skinned folks went something like this: “Well, I guess some of them might be alright, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”

Flash forward six decades and an ocean away to Europe and consider these results from a new survey from the Pew Research Center, mapping responses to how non-Muslim folks in Europe would feel if one of their children decided to marry a Muslim:

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!

Maps of the day: Where the haters are


From the bodacious British crafty cartographers of Worldmapper, to look at hate groups in the U.S., first, in the larger map, showing the states resized according to population and shaded according to the numbers of hate groups in each state, The lower maps are resized according to memberships of specific types of hate groups [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from Worldmapper:

Hate and extremism have gained wider attention with the rise in populism and populist politics. The election of Donald Trump was also in part attributed to his rhetoric connecting to far-right extremism in the US. In the UK, a spike in hate crime was linked to the Brexit vote, while a considerable increase in anti-Muslim abuse has also been observed in recent years.

Describing and understanding hate crimes and groups associated with committing (or endorsing and promoting) such crimes is a complex issue and scholarly definitions are still not fully agreed upon. Dr Phyllis Gerstenfeld of CSU Stanislaus describes a hate crime as ‘a criminal act which is motivated, at least in part, by the group affiliation of the victim.’ John van Kesteren of Tilburg University observes that prejudice and hatred of specific social groups ‘characterized by immigrant or ethnic status, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability’ are therefore at the core of hate-related crimes.

Among the organisations monitoring groups that advocate hatred is the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) which was founded by civil rights lawyers in reaction to activities by white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Today its scope includes the activities of a broad range of US hate groups and other extremists, including the Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, anti-government militias, Christian Identity adherents and others.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 has brought hate groups further into the spotlight. The SPLC attributes this to the divisive and polarising language he is using. A study undertaken in the aftermath of the presidential election indicated evidence for this ‘Trump effect’, with a significant number of hate incidents immediately after the election, and 37 per cent of the 1,094 investigated bias incidents referring directly to the then president-elect or using his campaign slogans.

This cartogram is based on a compilation of a total of 917 hate groups that the SPLC has identified across the mainland 48 states of the USA in the year 2016. It uses ‘hate group publications and websites, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports’ for its database and monitors activities such as ‘criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing.’

The overall distribution of hate groups is shown in the main cartogram at the top of this page. Here each state is resized according to the total number of groups, overlaid by the proportion of hate groups in relation to the population distribution.

The SPLC categorises a total of 18 hate ideologies of which nine are displayed above in more detail as cartograms distorting the states by the distribution of the respective hate ideology. The colours in the smaller cartograms shown throughout the page refer to four main regions within the USA as shown in the reference map.

This series shows that hate ideologies follow some distinct spatial patterns across the USA. The Ku Klux Klan is rarely represented in the western region, while the neo-Confederates appear even more concentrated following their ideological origins in the south. Christian Identity in contrast, an anti-Semitic and racist theology that rose in the 1980s, is in decline. Today’s anti-Muslim hate groups have started emerging in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – 2016 has seen a 197 per cent increase in numbers. The distribution of anti-Muslim hate groups is widespread, looking similar to the overall population distribution.

This picture is only part of the whole phenomenon of hate groups, which has been on a steady rise in the digital world as well. The maps give an indication of the disparate patterns that underlie these extremist views. The geography of hate in the United States is a reflection of the realities that determine the social tensions within the different parts of the country.