White nationalists tricked media about school shooter… and fooled me too

What went wrong, and how it fits into the new age of misinformation.

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A few hours after a gunman opened fire on his fellow students in Parkland, Florida, alt-right websites like Infowars were already trying to blame Muslims, Communists, Trump opponents, democrats… anyone and everyone on their enemies list.

The problem isn’t “waiting to politicize” — that ship has long since sailed — it’s creating downright false narratives to affirm one’s own “side.”

One Twitter user who goes by “Respectable Lawyer” had a viral moment debunking the Infowars conspiracy (not even addressing the typical Alex Jones line that the shooting was a “false flag” carried out by actors).

The following afternoon, the Anti-Defamation League reported that it had spoken to the leader of a white nationalist group called Republic of Florida who claimed the shooter was a member. Reporters began trying to confirm. The AP, ABC, and the Daily Beast all spoke to the group leader and found corroborating sources on social media.

They ran the story. Others picked up on it. I, having read versions published by the AP, LA Times, BuzzFeed, and the Daily Beast, shared the latter to my Twitter followers.

It was all an orchestrated hoax.

Continue reading “White nationalists tricked media about school shooter… and fooled me too”

The Media and the Death Penalty in Arkansas

The world watched as Arkansas attempted a rapid series of executions. University of Central Arkansas Communication students spoke to media witnesses. Here’s what they learned…

The State of Arkansas attempted to execute eight men in an 11-day span in April 2017. The rapid pace, brought on by the imminent expiration of the lethal injection drugs, drew national and international attention to a correctional facility along a rural highway near a town of 523 people.

This semester, beginning four months later, I taught a special topic course on public relations, the press and public affairs at the University of Central Arkansas. We chose the executions as our local issue to examine, looking at the relationship between journalists, government institutions, and advocacy groups in framing and disseminating information to the public.

One of our goals was to communicate what we learned to the larger campus community. As I began to schedule possible guests, they were requesting the same dates. And so we decided to bring four broadcast journalists on the same day and hold a public forum. To my knowledge, it marks the first time since the executions that those witnessing and reporting on them have come together to speak about those experiences.

On Wednesday, November 15, we welcomed three witnesses – one from each of the TV news groups in Little Rock – and one public radio reporter who reported heavily on open-information struggles between media and the Arkansas Department of Corrections.

The event was entirely prepared and implemented by students in the class. Their PR know-how secured a location and resources for the event, as well as promoted it on campus and to the surrounding community (here’s their news release; you’ll see some of the other materials below). Meanwhile, they used their journalistic skills to research the executions and the major players involved.

On the day of the forum, students handled everything from seating and administering extra credit to streaming, facilitating media covering the event, and moderating our panel.

It’s a proud day for a professor when all I have to do is invite the crowd to give them a hearty round of applause at the end of a job well done.

You can watch the archive of our Facebook Live stream here:

Thanks to some dedicated live tweeters, we have quite a collection of highlights from the event. Enjoy… Continue reading “The Media and the Death Penalty in Arkansas”

The grad student tax is an attack on higher education. Let’s try to stop it.

Grad student tax burdens could quadruple. What that means, why it’s happening, and what we can do about it.

The tax plan being debated in the halls of Congress is going to greatly limit access to graduate education. The version passed by the House counts as income the tuition waivers received by grad students on fellowships or assistantships (that’s just about everyone not in law or med school). The result is a huge tax increase for students making next-to-nothing.

Here’s how it works: most graduate students teach and/or do research for the university in exchange for a small living stipend and not having to pay tuition. While some in the hard sciences get more, those stipends typically hover just above the poverty line for a full-time workload (ask anyone who works in these alleged “20-hour a week” positions that are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act). Tuition waivers are far more valuable, wiping away an expense that would be double to triple the income earned from the stipend. That’s not income grad students ever see, nor is it a tax deduction they have to claim; it’s just an expense they don’t have to pay. But taxing that as income can take a potentially catastrophic chunk out of the actual stipend money a student has to live on.

I ran the numbers on my graduate education. Here’s how the changes in the House tax bill would’ve increased my tax burden by counting my tuition waiver as income (pre-deductions for simplicity):

Master’s: Tax rate increases from 10% to 32% of actual income
Doctorate: Tax rate increases from 12% to 50% (!) of actual income

I was fortunate. I got a Master’s degree in-state and lived rent-free with family. With those discounts and a few part-time jobs, I made it work. And maybe, under the new plan, I could still float that.

But a Ph.D. with 50% of my actual income going to taxes? I literally couldn’t have afforded rent in a dirt cheap college town.

I could not have become an educator.

And lots of other would-be graduate students in lots of other fields would not be able to reach their aspirations because Uncle Sam priced them out of it.

Many graduate programs are the purest remaining pursuits of knowledge & creativity. They don’t end in high-paying jobs that make shouldering years of debt feasible.

Arts, humanities & social sciences, particularly, are going to get crushed by this.

Of course, STEM folks are saying it’s going to kill STEM too. And, honestly, that’s a more compelling argument to Washington, because it more directly threatens economic growth.

I think these programmatic statements have a lot to do with the silos we live in as graduate students and the precision with which we learn to make claims. We talk about our disciplines because they are the ones we know and have experienced.

Let’s be clear: This threatens all of us.

Let’s be clear again: Our fate rests in the hands of Senate Republicans.

Continue reading “The grad student tax is an attack on higher education. Let’s try to stop it.”

Trust in a fake news world

“Fake news” defined an election, and continues to play a prominent role in the presidency of the candidate that most benefited from all of its forms. Gather a bunch of journalism educators together, and it’s no surprise we’re going to want to talk about it. That’s what happened in Chicago at the 2017 annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). Continue reading “Trust in a fake news world”

Assimilation vs. Contrast: Making sense of the relationship between biased assimilation and hostile media perception

How do partisans arrive at seeing the world differently than the rest of us? I combed the research that’s been done, and look at where we need to go next.

This paper was presented May 27, 2017 at the International Communication Association Annual Conference in San Diego, Calif.

Political ideologues, religious zealots, die-hard sports fans… people who are heavily invested in a “side” tend to see the world differently than those who don’t have a dog in the fight. Over time, we’ve amassed a wealth of research that exhibits partisans entrench in their positions either by merging evidence into their argument that probably doesn’t belong (something called assimilation), or by dismissing any threatening information as irrelevant, biased, or hostile (contrast).

What’s less clear is how the partisan mind determines its method of biased information processing – how do we choose between assimilation or contrast?

The two have largely been studied in their own separate arenas, but it makes sense for us to come together. The connection has been there for a long time, dating back to the Sherifs’ work on social judgment, which suggested “latitudes” of acceptance or rejection of dissonant messages. More recently, Albert Gunther and colleagues suggested an assimilation-contrast continuum.

But how would that work? I examined the existing literature within two theoretical frameworks – biased assimilation and hostile media perception, to search for key predictors. Those can be grouped into two primary categories: Continue reading “Assimilation vs. Contrast: Making sense of the relationship between biased assimilation and hostile media perception”

Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it? Continue reading “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”

Donald Trump is dividing the church

As women of faith find their voice and Millennial Christians question the Religious Right, what does making Donald Trump the candidate of the faithful mean for the church?

I was traveling through the Mississippi Delta when I heard the tape of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk.”

“How can he recover from this,” I initially reacted, before reminding myself how many times we’ve wondered that before.

But as the weekend progressed, the backlash was stronger than any Trump controversy to date, as more establishment Republicans disavowed their own candidate.

Trump couldn’t have been luckier from a news cycle perspective. The tape leaked on Friday afternoon and the exodus followed while most of us were watching football. By the time we started paying attention again, the second debate had fragmented political media attention in a million different directions. And while Trump may have not won over many undecideds with his performance, he delivered enough red meat to his base to give fleeing Republicans pause.

Leaks targeted both candidates that Friday. Before the Trump tape, Wikileaks released emails containing text excerpts of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street executives. Both leaks were revelations only insomuch as they confirmed things we already knew about each person’s character.

But the Trump audio was the far bigger story. For one thing, it was more visceral. We could hear the crude words from Trump’s own lips, as opposed to reading the pandering words attributed to Clinton.

More importantly, while the Clinton excerpts outraged people who were never going to vote for her, the Trump tape caused division among his supporters… a division that’s more significant than one election.

It was the countless churches lining that Mississippi highway, and highways like it all across securely red states. Trump divided Evangelicals.

Continue reading “Donald Trump is dividing the church”