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

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

Advertisements

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”

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”

Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage. Would fact checking change any of that?

Tonight, a likely record-setting television audience will watch the first presidential debate of the 2016 election. And the majority of that audience will not trust any of the three people on the stage.

Donald Trump is distrusted by 57% of Americans, according to last weekend’s ABC/Washington Post poll. As with so much in this bizzaro-world election, that would be a damning figure if not for his opponent – 60% of those surveyed viewed Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy.

The moderator of the debate, NBC’s Lester Holt, meanwhile, is the stand in for “the media,” which is less trusted than either historically distrusted presidential candidate. Only 32% of Americans have at least a “fair amount” of trust in media, according to a Gallup poll released in mid-September.

So, it’s not surprising that we’re talking a lot about fact checking at the debates. The question is whether or not it’s the role of an agent of the widely distrusted media to call out either widely distrusted candidate on claims that are demonstrably false.

Plenty has been written about whether fact checking is the moderator’s role. The moderator of the third debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, has already said he doesn’t think it’s his job. Yesterday, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates agreed with Wallace’s stance, in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying that live fact-checking was too much of a grey area.

I want to approach this from a slightly different angle – would a fact-checking moderator benefit anyone? And if so, who?

First, we need to look into the minds of voters, and under the hood of the polling data.

Continue reading “Should debate moderators fact check? Polling, psychology & reaching Millennials”

Why did media ignore flooding in Louisiana?

While parts of Louisiana became literal islands, much of the country was cutoff from the story by scant media coverage.

Reporters are lining beaches along the Florida panhandle this morning, making sure their mics pick up as much wind as possible as Tropical Storm Hermine approaches. It’s the top story on every morning news program – the journalistic convention for landfalling tropical systems (what do I mean? I wrote this lead last night, then confirmed with a quick flip through the channels over breakfast).

A few hundred miles west, Louisiana is still recovering. Some areas only recently arose from the flood waters that first submerged them three weeks ago. Personal possessions line streets in garbage heaps. Many schools are still closed.

The scope is staggering. Over 100,000 homes flooded in and around Baton Rouge and Lafayette; 13 people killed. When the waters crested, many small towns had become islands, separated from hospitals, gas stations, and grocery stores.

I know this largely because of family and friends on Facebook. From the outset, locals accused media of ignoring the story. We have to be careful about this – Southerners can be thin-skinned about perceived attacks from “the mainstream media,” including those greatly distorted or possibly fabricated.

[Related: Did ESPN Commentators Call Mississippians Poor?]

But I had to admit, I wasn’t seeing much coverage either. And eventually, the media turned a critical eye on itself. The New York Times waited three days to move their staff writer in New Orleans to the scene of the devastation 75 miles away. Public Editor Liz Spayd lamented the paper’s aggregation of media reports instead of conducting original reporting, concluding that “A news organization like The Times – rich with resources and eager to proclaim its national prominence – surely can find a way to cover a storm that has ravaged such a wide stretch of the country’s Gulf Coast.”

Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather took to Facebook to blame television news for choosing “the easy ratings of pundits playing the schadenfreude game in air conditioned studios” over sending reporters and resources to the flood zone.

I don’t have empirical data to analyze the amount and prominence of coverage compared to other natural disasters (though it’d be a fun study; anyone want to help?). For now, I’m relying on anecdotal evidence and observations of those in the industry. And that tells me the flooding in Louisiana was, and continues to be, drastically underreported.

Why?

To try to begin answering that question, I did my usual media scanning, and asked two meteorologists to help me fill in the gaps.

Continue reading “Why did media ignore flooding in Louisiana?”