Monday, October 23, 2017

The State of The Media Address, 2017. By Echidne


1.  Most news web pages now won't let me read an article without white-listing the page or pausing my Ad Blocker.  This means that I cannot read those sites without being exposed to their ads.

I get the reason: The free rider problem is enormous in journalism, and the development of Craig's List and other similar web markets have largely destroyed the old way newspapers used to fund their activities: By selling ads.  Indeed, the whole industry is dying a painful death, because most everything can now be obtained without paying for it, so why pay?*

But if few are willing to pay for news, then very few journalists will be able to make a living, foreign news bureaus will no longer exist, and ultimately we will all be stuck with trying to guess which rumors on Twitter or Facebook might be news and which might be fake news**.  Besides, money will be available for propaganda (which is at least biased news if not fake news) for much longer than it will be available for news, and the Republicans have a lot more money.

That makes subscribing to mainstream news important, even if they do a less than perfect job, and I do subscribe to all the major news sources I use for my blogging (thanks, nice donors).  But I can't afford to subscribe or donate to every single site I might need to read when I research a topic.  Instead, I read the allowed free articles and use an Ad Blocker.

Why block the ads?  Because moving GIFs and videos performing at a certain frequency give me an almost instant 24-hour migraine.  The sites I have contacted have not been willing to guarantee that their ads won't use those frequencies.  If I want to read that free article, I must take a health risk.  It's only fair.

So it goes.

2.  A recent Politico / Morning Consult survey found that 46 percent*** of the registered voters in the survey believe that the nation's major news organizations (p.146) fabricate**** stories about Donald Trump and his flying circus (administration).  How sad that they did not list those major news organizations!

It makes quite a bit difference if, say, Fox News is listed among them or not listed among them.

Republican men and women are the most likely to believe that the media lie about Trump, however, so it's probably the case that the findings reflect this new world where Republicans and Democrats sit inside their own information bubbles and simply refuse to believe anything from outside that bubble.

Republicans have long decided that the so-called mainstream news are not neutral at all, so it doesn't come as a great surprise that when the weird stuff about Trump's escapades comes out it's simply rejected as "fake news."

After all, that's what he tells his acolytes in plentiful tweets.  Though the weird stuff is also in his tweets and easily available to those acolytes!  Now think of those two facts together inside someone's head,  and your own head will start feeling dizzy.  Mine did, in any case.

Why didn't the survey ask if the respondents think Trump himself fabricates stories?  That's a lot more likely than some kind of a vast conspiracy where all the major news media secretly collaborate with each other.  Besides, it would have been fun to see if the political tribalism is equally fervent when the question is put that way.

What's troublesome about this trend is that I see no easy way to correct the tribal refusal to interrogate news sources of all kinds or to learn, more generally,  how facts can be established.


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*  The free rider problem is an example of the kind of economic behavior which is individually optimal and rational (you get stuff for nothing), but which is destructive from a wider angle:  Ultimately the news we are able to read without paying will no longer be produced as the people working to produce them will not be paid.

Potential readers often argue that the news media would be paid if they worked in a more objective and better way, and cancelling subscriptions is a fun way to show our disapproval.

But even if the media was perfect (which will never be the case), the free rider problem would remain, as its basis is technological.  We really must think of some other way of paying for news, because a free press IS indispensable for democracy.

**  The problem is not limited to the fact that propagandists have a great incentive to disseminate biased or fake news.  It also includes the fact that becoming a good reporter takes skill, practice and learning, and producing news takes money.  Volunteer laypeople can provide anecdotal evidence and their private experiences, but they cannot replace professional news production.

***  Thirty-seven percent of the respondents don't think that the media fabricates such news, seventeen percent don't know.

As a complete aside, the same survey also tells us 66% of the respondents support the provision of contraceptives in health insurance, either strongly or somewhat.  Even the plurality of Republican men (the group which tends to oppose such things) supports that, and so do the majority of Catholic respondents.  This suggests that the current war against contraception is based on some desire by one of the shadowy figures behind Trump (either the white supremacy boyz or some billionaire with a particular pet hatred).

But what's fascinating about the answers to the question are the very large differences  (pp.119-120) between male and female respondents, both overall and within each party.  Contraception benefits both participants in a heterosexual intercourse when no pregnancy is desired, so heterosexual men, too, benefit from contraception used by heterosexual women for the purposes of preventing pregnancy (and without any side-effects to them).  Yet more men than women oppose the idea altogether.

The interesting question is whether the same men who express opposition in these answers would also oppose the coverage of a safe and effective male contraceptive pill in health insurance.  The answers to that would tell us if the opposition is about not wanting to pay for other people's sex or about something quite different.

****  This footnote was added later, because it occurred to me later:  The question actually has "fabricated" in it.  It's not a good word to use, and it's just possible that some respondents didn't realize it's the same as lying.  Why not call it lying? 





  

Friday, October 20, 2017

Abortion Rates Are Down, But The Trump Administration Seems To Want To See Them Up Again


According to the Guttmacher Institute:

Between 2008 and 2014, the overall U.S. abortion rate declined by 25%, from 19.4 to 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44. Key data points that may help explain this decline, including trends in unintended pregnancy, are not yet available for this time period. However, the available information suggests that improvements in contraceptive use—particularly among women aged 20–24, who account for one-third of unintended pregnancies in the United States—were an important driver behind the decline. Abortion rates declined among all demographic groups from 2008–2014, but the declines varied widely by group.

It's too bad that the necessary data to explain the decline isn't yet available, though note that the above excerpt singles out improvements in contraceptive use*.  That the Affordable Care Act made contraception more affordable could well be part of the explanation.  If it is, what the Trump administration is doing right now could reverse that falling trend.

Such an outcome should be the very opposite to what the so-called pro-lifers (who largely voted for Trump) want, if they indeed were motivated by the desire to reduce abortion rates.

But it sounds like the Trump administration has added an anti-contraception stance to its anti-abortion stance. Erin Gloria Ryan writes the following about a leaked memo which is supposed to have come from this administration:

If the Trump administration got its way, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) budget for family planning would be slashed, with “no other family planning programming for girls except fertility awareness methods.” Lapsed Catholics should remember the phrase “fertility awareness” from confirmation class; it’s just a scienced-up term for “the rhythm method,” a form of birth control that doesn’t work for one-quarter of couples who use it.


Title X funding, which helps poor women afford contraception, would be slashed in half if Team Trump gets its way. Money would be diverted from sex education that emphasizes “risk reduction” and instead flow toward “sexual risk avoidance,” which is another term for “abstinence-only education.” Abstinence-only education doesn’t work. A report published this year declared the practice both “ineffective and unethical.”

Bolds are mine.

There was a time when I believed that writing about a conservative attempt to make birth control harder for women to access would be joining the tinfoil brigades.  Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

I'd love to know who is behind this memo.  Is it the extremist anti-contraception Catholics or some other fundamentalist group?  Why do they appear to support policies which will cause suffering and poverty at home as well as abroad?

And what about the impact of such inherently stupid policies (not letting women avoid pregnancies they don't want) on overpopulation in poorer countries,  on increased fights for arable resources and water, on higher levels of conflict, on greater levels of political radicalization,  and ultimately on much vaster numbers of economic migrants?

The goals of world peace, global economic well-being and the empowerment of women both at home and abroad are all at risk if the Trump administration actually manages to reduce poorer women's access to contraception.  But given what else we know about this administration's policies, this could well be the intended effect.

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*  Other explanations are possible, either alone or in combination with the one mentioned in the body of this post.  For instance, the Republicans' strong push to make abortion unavailable in practice, however legal it might be in theory, could have resulted in larger numbers births to women with unplanned pregnancies.  To gauge that theory, we need data on pregnancy rates.  But the available evidence is more likely to support the explanation based on improved contraception use:

And contrary to what anti-abortion advocates might hope, this historically low abortion rate also does not mean that more people are choosing to carry their pregnancies to term instead of having abortions. The abortion rate in the United States has been declining for the last 25 years. As of data from 2011, unintended pregnancies have declined, and as of this past summer, the birth rate in the United States is at an all-time low.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

#MeToo: A Few Statistical Points


I plan to write about the #MeToo hashtag more later, but right now it seems useful to point out that the hashtag (used on Facebook and Twitter to denote that the woman (or man) posting or tweeting it has also been the target of sexual harassment and/or sexual violence) does not directly measure the percentage of all women (or of all men and women) who have experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence.  That's because a) not every person is on social media, aware of the hashtag or willing to use it, and b) there's no comparable #MeNeither hashtag that those would use who have had no such experiences or at least do not recall them.

For us to get more accurate data of the overall prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence, as well as on how such behaviors are divided into, say, street harassment and workplace/school harassment, we still need surveys based on random sampling from the general population. 

What the #MeToo hashtag tells us is that sexual harassment, at least, seems to be pretty common.  But it cannot tell us exactly how common*, and it cannot tell us what percentage is of the Weinstein-type harassment taking place at work or at school, possibly by individuals who have career-breaking power over the target,  and what type consists of, say, street harassment by strangers.

This seemed worth writing, because I have come across a few essays asking if anything at all could be done about a phenomenon which appears so ubiquitous.  That kind of despondency is unwarranted, in my opinion.

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* Both because the hashtag doesn't measure the percentage of all women who have experienced sexual harassment and/or sexual violence and because it doesn't differentiate between one experience and several experiences per each respondent.
 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trump Giving Condolences


In the most recent installment of Trump-scapades, we are told that Trump's telephone call with the widow of a slain US soldier, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, might have gone in a way most atypical of condolence calls:

Twelve days after four Americans were killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger, the president called the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was among the slain, and said that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” referring to the soldier only as “your guy,” according to Sergeant Johnson’s mother and a Democratic congresswoman, who both listened to the call.
Mr. Trump angrily disputed that account, insisting that he “had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.” The White House accused the congresswoman, Frederica S. Wilson of Florida, of politicizing a sacred ritual after Mr. Trump initially said she “fabricated” it.
Without very clear proof to the contrary, I'm going to believe Sergeant Johnson's mother and Congresswoman Wilson.  That's because the quote sounds like Trump.  He has always had difficulty expressing empathy or sympathy, as if he was trying to speak a language he didn't know very well.

That inability to empathize was clearly discernible during his presidential campaigning.  So all who voted for him knew what they signed up for.  




And The Birds Still Tweet. Or On Twitter.


Two articles I have recently read are the reason for this post.  First, Buzzfeed reports that Twitter was warned, several times, about a Russian troll account masquerading as an organ for the Tennessee Republican Party:

Twitter took 11 months to close a Russian troll account that claimed to speak for the Tennessee Republican Party even after that state's real GOP notified the social media company that the account was a fake.
The account, @TEN_GOP, was enormously popular, amassing at least 136,000 followers between its creation in November 2015 and when Twitter shut it down in August, according to a snapshot of the account captured by the Internet Archive just before the account was "permanently suspended."

Some in the Trump campaign retweeted tweets from @TEN_GOP before the elections.


 Second,  Mike Monteiro wrote a long piece about his disenchantment with Twitter, as a way of expanding freedom of expression.  A snippet from that:

Twitter would have you believe that it’s a beacon of free speech. Biz Stone would have you believe that inaction is principle. I would ask you to consider the voices that have been silenced. The voices that have disappeared from Twitter because of the hatred and the abuse. Those voices aren’t free. Those voices have been caged. Twitter has become an engine for further marginalizing the marginalized. A pretty hate machine.
The whole piece is worth reading.  I don't agree with every bit of it, but I must admit that I'm slightly uncomfortable with Twitter's format.  Those short tweets are almost custom-made to create misunderstandings and to be taken out of context.

And once someone does that, the effect can be like blood in the water for sharks:  The Twitter gangs* start cycling around the chosen "victim" and fun and games will follow.

That's not exactly what Monteiro writes about, I think, but it's related.  The conversations on Twitter can be one-on-one, between a handful of people, one-on-many (Trump, say) and many-on-one (and that's where the nasty aspects of Twitter are).

Twitter is not all bad.  It can be wonderful in quickly telling me what some people are talking about (not "all people," because none of us follows everyone) and it can bring news quickly to our attention.  It's also a place where the more marginalized groups can communicate with each other and create a more powerful representation.

But it does appeal to certain nasty aspects in us humans, probably because of the pretend-anonymity and the relative lack of negative consequences from harassing someone in the Twitter format.

Add to that the commercial and popularity incentives which  Monteiro discusses (which even include such weird practices as buying followers),  and we clearly have something with not only benefits but also distinct problems.

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*  These gangs can be of different types.  Many consist of misogynists and/or racists, many of people with particular and strong political affiliations, and some are of the type which remind me of the Scarlet Letter:  People who delight in taking down someone who said something nasty or stupid, going as far as making sure that someone not in a public role is going to be fired.   There's overlap between those groups and the list is not exhaustive.


Monday, October 16, 2017

On That Passive Voice. Or How We Get Ourselves Sexually Harassed.



You may have come across this tweet (which is chopped off as shown here).  It refers to a Ted Talk (which I couldn't find on quick Googling) and points out the frequent use of passive voice in how pregnancies or rape etc. are reported:


When I saw that tweet I felt that I must have written something about this.  And, indeed, I did, in 2013 on rape, and several times, including here in 2013 and here in  2017, on pregnancy.

What's the point of this post?  To show you that I'm usually about four years too early when it comes to the topics of the day.   Also that I won (I can't be perfect all the time!).

A Trump Mélange: Empathy and Its Lack, Health Care and Judeo-Christian Values



A neat title, eh?  I keep trying to learn more fancy English words, and mélange is the word for the day.  Coleslaw would have been good, too, because it's a bit the way Trump's brain seems to work.  In any case, the point is to show the vast reaches of the damage he is causing by going chop-chop-chop on varying fields, from American health care to American basic political norms and even stomping on such basic human values as empathy.

This is going to be fun.

1.  First, note how Trump must be dragged kicking and screaming into noticing the pain and suffering of anyone else?  Puerto Rico, anyone?  Remember how he was just going to lie down and have grapes peeled for him while Puerto Rico drowned? 

Or, if you prefer, remember how he was playing his fiddle while Rome burned?  As an aside, I'm developing a lot of empathy for those who had to live under the power of emperors Nero and Caligula.  Empathy:  That thing Trump lacks completely.

His lack of reaction to the death of four US soldiers in Niger has been similarly odd:

On Saturday October 7, the day the body of 25-year-old Army Sgt. La David Johnson was returned to Dover Air Force Base after he was killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger, President Donald Trump was golfing. 
From another angle the events in Niger would have been the new Benghazi, had Hillary Clinton been the current president, right?  But Trump couldn't be bothered to say anything about this at all, until he was goaded into it.

And what do we get then?  This:

President Trump on Monday claimed former President Obama and other past presidents didn't call the families of fallen soldiers.
Trump made the remark after being asked about the four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger last week. 
The president said he planned to call the parents and families of those who were killed, something he said he has done "traditionally."
Does that exchange remind you of anything?  Anything at all?  How about two children squabbling, an adult telling them to behave, and one of them grumpily whining:  "He started it!?"  Well, Trump lied in that statement.

This, my friends, is the man tens of millions of Americans thought would be a great choice to steer one of the most powerful countries on earth.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists have suggested that he suffers not only from pathological narcissism and impulsive behavior borderline personality disorder, but also from total lack of empathy.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Losing Memory




The losses mount. 

First she forgets where she put her keys, then where she parked her car, then she forgets that not all keys open all doors. Next she forgets her children, not remembering where she put them, where she parked them, what they might be for.  Last she forgets the words, the sentences, the chains which bind meaning together.  But the meaning, the meaning she remembers.  It is in her eyes.

We sit by the window when a hare leaps into the picture the window frames.  It stops, cranes its head, turns its long ears toward us, and looks at us with meaning in its eyes.  

She points at the hare, smiles, turns toward me and whispers: "Hare!"  

We hold hands.

This we still have.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

And the First Women's Convention Presents: Drum Roll....Bernie Sanders!


The Women's Convention, organized by the organizers of the Women's March, opens on October 27.  Guess who its headline speaker will be?  Senator Bernie Sanders.

There's nothing wrong with male politicians supporting an event such as the Women's Convention by attending or even by speaking.  But the choice of a man as the headline speaker is most unfortunate, however progressive he might be.

It makes the women who organized the convention look weak and in need of male leadership or — if it really was true that no famous woman could be found to speak on that night — it echoes the familiar anti-feminist argument that there just aren't enough good women in the various pipelines, but a good man could easily be found.

One of the organizers gave an "inclusiveness" reason for the choice of Sanders as the headline speaker:*

...“we believe as women … that we ought to have more than just women at the Women’s Convention.”
And that is wonderful.  Bernie Sanders**, and other male allies,  should certainly have been invited, both to attend and to speak if their message merited that. 

But I have always understood, based on what I've seen progressives state online and in various protest instructions, that the allies to a cause are not to take center stage, are not to march in the front, are not to steal the limelight.

In this particular case the limelight and center stage seem to have been handed to an ally, though.  The fault thus belongs to the organizers of the convention.

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*  I interpret the message as about inclusiveness, though, to be honest, I'm not quite certain what the quote is supposed to say.  I couldn't find the omitted part with some quick Googling. 

Inclusiveness can be a tricky concept, by the way.  It's important to make sure that previously marginalized groups are included in social justice movements which concern them, and it's important to make their voices heard.

But general inclusiveness is not always an asset.  If it extends to the goals of a protest (as was, to some extent, the case with the Women's Marches), then some of the goals are bound to stand in direct contradiction with each other, assuming that all different groups can contribute their own goals.  Thus, initially both pro-life and pro-choice groups were invited to participate in the Marches, and even later, when the former were dis-invited,  theoretical contradictions between feminism and some of the other goals remained.

Likewise, if the attendance is encouraged to be as inclusive as possible, the Convention will then no longer have much anything to do with women, per se.  Theoretically it would then be possible to have the convention halls full of men and women who oppose gender equality, even if the topics weren't expanded to cover such concerns.

** (This footnote added later)  Note, however, that Sanders has several opinions which might raise an eyebrow or two among many progressive women and at least some progressive men. For example, his opinions about so-called "identity politics" are perhaps not terribly nuanced, and he appears to view reproductive choice as somehow not related to the economic advancement of women, but a completely separate issue.