[Published] Burst the bubble

The toxicity that leads some of us to unplug from social media is a feature, not a bug. 

I’ve been vaguely familiar with the social media app Parler for maybe a year. The free speech haven made a splash after the election, attracting conservatives fed up with perceived bias from Facebook and Twitter. Though Parler imagines itself a free wheeling marketplace of ideas, its recruiting efforts have attracted a decidedly homogenous user base.

Echo chambers are nothing new. But here in Arkansas, we saw an example of the type of rhetoric one can feel comfortable expressing in such a place, when the police chief of a small town posted “parleys” calling for violence against Democrats on the national stage, and in your community.

This piece gave me a chance to revisit some important themes throughout 2020 – that social media coupled with a pandemic is a recipe for heightened partisanship – and to take a look at a new dimension of hyperpolarization: the radicalization resulting from constant enemy-making.

Partisans aren’t just encouraged by affirmations of their in-group; they are galvanized by demonizations of out-groups. Straw men and memes mocking the “other side” prevail across partisan filter bubbles, creating what Italian researchers called an “emotional contagion” of negativity and what a new study out of the University of Virginia deemed a “phenomenon of animosity.”

This was also a chance to share some surface findings from a study of partisan social media bubbles during the election. Look for more of that on the horizon soon.

Read the full story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

Online exam cheating? Don’t spy on your students; make better tests

The COVID-19 pandemic means more online exams than ever before. But privacy shouldn’t be sacrificed for academic integrity.

Cheating on exams is the biggest academic integrity concern for online classes. Schools and universities have invested in all sorts of security measures, from ineffective lockdown browsers to webcam monitoring that students call “an invasion of privacy.”

Requiring a lockdown browser and webcam surveillance isn’t just overkill for academic integrity, it’s invasive and discriminatory toward low-income students. That’s because those security measures often run into compatibility issues with older computers and Chromebooks, the most common budget laptop.

Automated surveillance also reinforces stigma that make students apprehensive about participating in online education. Don’t have the luxury of a quiet room to attend online classes? Does being home mean you’re responsible for taking care of family members coming in and out of your camera shot? Automated systems will flag those circumstances as suspicious, spiking anxiety in an already anxious time. Faculty can override them, but that still means applying extra scrutiny to students who have done nothing to warrant it.

I don’t require webcam surveillance on account of the compatibility issues and – let’s be honest – the creepiness of the whole thing. Nor do I require a lockdown browser when most students have an unlocked smartphone sitting right next to them.

The solution doesn’t have to be a surveillance state. Teachers have plenty of less intrusive options when it comes to exam settings, and the style of the assessment itself.

Continue reading “Online exam cheating? Don’t spy on your students; make better tests”

[Quoted] America’s problems are real, but the news coverage needs to keep it in proportion

This is classic cultivation theory in mass communication — we see clips of violence, overestimate the prevalence of that violence, and it triggers psychological defense mechanisms to protect ourselves and our side.

Conor Friedersdorf is one of my favorite libertarians to read. He made this remark on Twitter after a summer of unrest captured on video:

It made me immediately think of George Gerbner’s cultivation theory. It’s an especially valuable teaching moment when mass communication theories from decades ago find newfound relevance on the smartphones in students’ hands today.

My thanks to Brian Stelter for giving an old media theory some new life.

Read the full story at CNN.

See more of my media appearances here.

[Quoted] Facebook advertising boycott: Campaign harming brand but not bottom line of media giant

“It’s low-stakes advocacy with high goodwill upside. These companies aren’t big Facebook spenders, and are only committing to suspend advertising through July. For wanderlust brands, pulling adverts when much of the world isn’t traveling makes sense apart from a boycott.”

Social media companies have come under increasing pressure to cut down on the amount of hate speech that circulates on their platforms. “Stop Hate for Profit” is one such movement, and it gained steam when a series of prominent outdoors brands, including North Face and Patagonia, announced they were pulling their advertising from Facebook.

At the risk of sounding cynical, this seems like an easy play for brands that were already cutting back on ad spending in a pandemic. But that doesn’t mean it can’t garner those companies some good PR, and if enough big spenders join the publicity party, it could potentially put a tiny dent in Facebook’s ad revenue. But when that’s the core of your business model… it’s an emerging crisis worth watching.

The boycotts have already proven to be excellent PR for the early-adopting brands, which may be the biggest encouragement for others to join the cause. We’ve seen study after study the past few years indicating that American consumers, especially the sought after 18-34 demo, want brands to engage in corporate advocacy.

Side note, it was really cool to appear alongside Matt Navarra in this piece. Matt’s one of my favorite voices for smart social media commentary. Follow him on Twitter.

Thanks to William Turvill for reaching out, and bearing with my wonky email client on deadline.

Read the full story in the U.K. Press Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

[Published] Why coronavirus conspiracies are thriving

The longer we stay at home and social distance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the more misinformation and conspiracy seem to thrive. Sure, the supply-side is spraying nonsense in every direction for profit, power, anarchy, or all the above. But the flood of falsehoods exists in part because demand is through the roof. The same measures keeping us safe from coronavirus are making us susceptible to misinformation about it.

It was the Plandemic video that really got my attention. I wasn’t just seeing it shared by my more conspiratorial friends, but by seemingly everyone on my Facebook news feed. So I started digging into what we know of selective exposure and cognitive outcome involvement, paired with early research on coronavirus messaging, to explain why conditions are ripe for conspiracies to travel beyond their usual circles, and what can be done at the state and individual level to combat it.

Read the full story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.