Testing the Difference Between “Fake News” and “Unsubstantiated Reports” with Provenance and Plausibility

I’ve been thinking a lot about “fake news” versus “alleged” or “unsubstantiated reports” lately– heck, anyone who has been paying any attention to last week’s news about Donald Tump has surly been thinking about this too. And it’s not just Trump labeling BuzzFeed and CNN as sources for “Fake News;” it’s other “news” people like Chuck Todd and the mainstream/traditional media across the board— at least that’s how they responded to the claims about Trump in Russia when they first broke. Within twenty-four hours of that initial story, even the New York Times was reporting on it.

Trump is going to label anything that doesn’t support him as “fake news” or coming from “losers” or being “sad” or whatever, and maybe BuzzFeed shouldn’t have published something that was as “unsubstantiated” as the stuff that was in this report. The journalism ethics here are complicated, though I have to say I think the MSM response has less to do with the question of when is proper to publish something and more to do with the “icky” factor of the alleged “golden shower” shows. BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith has been pretty smart about responding to the criticism– here’s a link to an interview he did on CNN. And once again, Teen Vogue has had excellent reporting/thought pieces on Trump, as in this piece “So You Read That Scandalous Report About Donald Trump and Russia– Now What?”

Anyway, in writing now about this, I’m not that interested in the ethical question of whether or not BuzzFeed should have published this in the first place. I’m more interested in playing around with/thinking about what sorts of strategies and processes can any of us use in evaluating these kinds of stories, and not just between something that is “fake” versus something that is “true,” but also between something that is “fake” versus something that is “alleged” or “unsubstantiated.” I think these are two different things and need to be treated differently: that is, something that is “fake” does not necessarily equal something that is “unsubstantiated,” and vice-versa. And as a rhetorician who has been influenced by a lot of postmodern/post-structural theories, this is also important to me because I kind of feel we’ve painted ourselves into a corner by the ways we have tended to academically approach “Truth.”

A simple example: in recent years, I’ve been very fond of showing a video called “In Defense of Rhetoric” that was put together by graduate students in Professional Communication at Clemson University in 2011. I think it does a very good job of explaining the basics of rhetoric for an audience who has only heard of the negative connotations– as in “that’s just empty rhetoric,” or (as an example from the video) the “art of bullshit.” But I have to say that this semester, in light of everything that has happened with the election and what seems to be a rise of a “post-truth era,” I did wince a bit when, at about the 10 minute mark in discussing “Epistemic Rhetoric,” the faculty interviewed here talk about how reality itself is constructed by rhetoric, about how everything we decide is based on judging between claims. I agree with this in theory, but the problem is this approach to reality is part of what’s enabling “Fake News” in the first place. It certainly has enabled Trump and his supporters to dismiss a story he doesn’t like as “fake” because if reality is based simply on how I see it being constructed rhetorically or on simply competing claims, why do we have to choose the same thing?

So how do we evaluate these claims of “Fake” versus “alleged,” and how should the press report the “unsubstantiated,” if they should report it at all?  This is what I am getting at with this idea of the tests of “provenance” and “plausibility.” By provenance, I mean an understanding of the origin of the story. I’m thinking here in particular of the way that term is used in the art and antique world to help determine authenticity and value. An antique that is accompanied with documentation that traces the history of an object is a whole lot more valuable than the same object without that documentation, and forging those documents is always a problem. (As a tangent here, I’m reminded of the novel The Goldfinch). By plausibility, I mean the potential that a story might be true based on the other things we know about the story, such as the people and places involved, when it supposedly happened, and so forth. I think I mean something here like ethos, but I think it is beyond just the individuals or even beyond the available evidence. Plausibility for me doesn’t mean whether or not something is (T)rue, but more along the lines of the odds that it’s (T)rue.

A sense of provenance and plausibility probably exists on a spectrum of “truthiness” I’ll call Fiction and (T)rue, and here I am mostly thinking of part of what Derek Mueller and I talked about the other day and/or the way that Bruno Latour talks about “black boxes” in Science in Action. I am far from a Latour scholar/expert so this reading might be a bit off, but basically, Latour points out that new discoveries/theories in science always depend on previously made discoveries/theories that are now presumed to be “(T)rue”– not in a “Platonic ideal across all space and time” notion of “Truth,” but in a “we’ve done this experiment a lot and gotten similar results so now presume it is a fact” sort of (T)rue. Geneticist are not running the experiments to determine the structure of DNA anymore because that is now just (T)rue and tucked away into a “black box”– which is to say there could be something we learn about DNA later that changes that and thus reopens that discussion.

To tease this all out, let’s compare the “fake” news that has been dubbed “Pizzagate” versus what I think is an “unsubstantiated” story about intelligence the Russians have about Trump.

“Pizzagate” was a conspiracy theory which claimed members of the Democratic Party– lead by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta– were running an elaborate human trafficking and pedophile sex ring housed in the basement of a a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong (apparently, you can play table tennis while eating pizza).  Snopes.com has an extensive entry about the controversy here, and the Washington Post also published this article tracing the origins of this story here, too. In my mind, this is about as extreme of an example of “fake” as it gets, but I think it’s an especially important example in at least two ways. First, the story spread through social media via ‘bots along with other conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Millions of people (and machines) reposted/retweeted this. Second, this story had real life and potentially very dangerous consequences since a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch, convinced the story was true, showed up at the pizza place with an AR-15 ready to free the children. Here’s a story from Mother Jones about Welch.

The allegations released by BuzzFeed about Trump were contained in a document supposedly a part of an intelligence report/briefing about stuff the Russians have on Trump to potentially blackmail or otherwise compromise him. Here’s a link to the original BuzzFeed story that contains the entire report. As a slight tangent: much of the sensationalism has to do with the practice of “urolagnia,” which is sexual excitement associated with urine. I’ll admit, I find the idea of “golden showers” both gross and, as it has been reported, darkly funny. But a) this is far from the most unusual “kink” out there, and b) hey, if it’s between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, who am I to criticize anyone’s sex life? What is frankly more troubling in these allegations are the other things that the Russians supposedly have on Trump in terms of real estate deals, grooming Trump as an “asset” to Russian intelligence, and the communications between Trump’s campaign and the Russians during the election cycle.

So, how do these stories stack up in terms of “provenance” and “plausibility?”

The provenance of both stories have already been explored and reported in some detail and the difference between these two examples are quite clear. Pizzagate emerges as a combination of pure fiction and rumors; in contrast, the allegations about Trump and the Russians was part of an intelligence dossier that has apparently been in the hands of a variety of folks (including journalists) for months. This is not to say that the allegations against Trump are accurate or even close to (T)rue; however, we know a lot about the origins of this story.

The plausibility of these two stories is also quite stark. As even Edgar Welch discovered once on the scene at Comet Ping Pong, it’s just not possible because of the building itself– never mind the craziness of the rest of the details. On the other hand, the allegations of Trump’s behavior in Russia strike me as completely plausible– although it probably didn’t actually happen. After all, Trump really did make a trip to Moscow when this is said to have happened (this was during the “Miss Universe” pageant). Further, we already know that Trump has made some cameo appearances in Playboy videos,  has bragged about grabbing women by “the pussy,” and, as reported just this morninghe is being sued by a former Apprentice contestant for sexual harassment and defamation. Obviously, these past activities don’t prove the allegations of his behavior in Moscow; however, I do think these past activities do help explain the plausibility of these allegations.

In my mind, this test of provenance and plausibility also works if we change the actors in these stories. I think it is implausible that Trump and Kellyanne Conway were running a pedophile sex ring out of a pizzeria pretty much for the same reasons it was implausible for Clinton and Podesta. But I think the plausibility changes a bit with the Russian allegations, particularly the specifics of the “golden shower” show. I think these allegations brought against politicians like Hilary Clinton, Obama, or either of the Bushes would be dismissed as just not plausible. However, would we be as quick to dismiss this kind of story if it were about Bill Clinton?

Anyway, I don’t know how useful it is to think of fake news versus allegations versus real news this way, as on the spectrum of fiction and (T)ruth, as being about measuring provenance and plausibility. I’m not sure how necessary this is either given that there are lots of schemes and advice out there for testing the “truthiness” of news of all sorts, particularly as it manifests in social media. I do know one thing: we’re all going to have to get a hell of a lot better at thinking about and describing the differences between the fake, the alleged, and the real.

Expanding on a Twitter Talk with @saragoldrickrab

Social media platforms like Twitter are useful for all sorts of things, including making connections with scholars/writers “out there” in academia and beyond. But these platforms aren’t very useful to host/sponsor a more thoughtful discussion about some complicated topic. Twitter is particularly bad at this.

This is why I thought it’d be useful (at least for myself) to create a blog post responding to the 25 or so Tweets I received from @saragoldrickrab last night (and another eight or so this afternoon).

And just to be clear: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Goldrick-Rab. She’s a rock-star academic who writes lots of smart stuff about education policy (I blogged here about a piece she wrote with Audrey Watters about Kevin Carey’s book), and I also blogged previously about a “Twitter storm” she was in back in July. So I’m not writing this as some effort to “mansplain” anything to her or anyone else; I’m trying to parse this out a bit more for myself and anyone else who might be interested.

Continue reading “Expanding on a Twitter Talk with @saragoldrickrab”

A short vacation post about academics on Twitter, @saragoldrickrab, and what our students don’t know

I’m on a vacation/family trip right now, and even while “away,” I tend to get up early and I’m currently enjoying a bit of peace and quiet. Almost all of the other 17 or so people sharing this giant vacation house are still asleep. So I thought I’d take a little time– just a little– to offer a few more thoughts about the Twitter conversation I had this morning. And let me apologize up front for not having all the details of this particular dust-up, for typing quickly (and thus with typos and bad sentences), etc.:

The latest installment of academics gone wild and/or “getting in trouble” on Twitter comes from CHE, “U. of Wisconsin Professor’s Tweets Draw Criticism From Her Own Colleagues.” Seems fitting since I actually am in Wisconsin right now. Anyway, the “naughty” tweeter in question is Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in Education Policy. Here’s a quote from the article:

To several students who had tweeted their excitement about enrolling at Madison under the hashtag #FutureBadgers, Ms. Goldrick-Rab sent a link to an op-ed essay from the Journal Sentinel criticizing the removal of tenure protection from state statutes. Here are some of the responses she got:

Here CHE includes some response Tweets– here’s a link to that— where basically some not so informed college kids respond “ha ha we don’t care” and other nonsense. This was like a month ago. Then the College Republicans got involved a month later, in part because Goldrick-Rab kept on going and tweeted “My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it’s terrifying.” This caused more outrage, more attacks on Goldrick-Rab on Twitter, and condemnation of Goldrick-Rab from both the UW Chancellor and the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate.

And then, like I said, I stumbled into a spirited and pleasant Twitter conversation about some of this this morning.

So, a few thoughts in not a very precise order:

  • The general public doesn’t understand tenure or the difference between what it means to be a professor, an associate professor, an assistant professor, a non-tenure-track professor/instructor/lecturer, part-timer, or a graduate assistant, all of which is to say that the general public does not understand why all these professors in Wisconsin are in such a tizzy about weakening tenure. So it is not at all surprising to me that some 18 year old young people “stoked” about being admitted to UW think it is uncool for sara to kill their buzz with some sort of newspaper article, man. Because even though Goldrick-Rab is completely right, academics in Wisconsin (really, everywhere) have A LOT more work to do to explain to our students and the public at large how this all works and why this matters. A lot more work.

Most of what academics take as “common knowledge” about how higher ed works is a mystery to the rest of the world. I can recall times where some of these issues have come up informally in class discussions over the years– sometimes during faculty union contract negotiations– and I’ve taken five minutes to explain to a room full of juniors and seniors some of the basics of higher ed hierarchies, not only about faculty but also administrators. For most of my students– juniors and seniors,  mind you!– this is all new information. So again, while Goldrick-Rab is completely right, she made the faulty assumption that her audience of stoked would-be freshmen would actually understand her references to this op-ed.

  • The second mistake I think Goldrick-Rab made is the comparison to Hitler, and actually, as a general rule of thumb, I think any argument that makes a comparison to Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. to a contemporary figure– as in “Scott Walker is like Hitler”– is lazy and it’s going to cause trouble. This “x is like Hitler” trope shows up so much on Twitter because it’s shorthand and you only have 140 characters. The problem is it’s not accurate– I am no fan of Scott Walker, but I don’t think he’s likely to wage an aggressive war of domination in Europe and a systematic extermination of the Jews– and it can be taken way out of context by a group like College Republicans, who are already probably sensitive enough to informally being compared to Nazis. Anyway, my first piece of advice to any would-be academic Twitter-er: no Hitler comparisons.
  • Two other bits of advice to would-be academic Tweeters (and this is a bit of a tangent, but it came up in my Twitter conversation this morning) I’ll mention. First, Twitter is a terrible place to try to discuss anything that is at all complex or controversial, and yet academics try to use it for that purpose all the time. This is why (IMO) online spaces like blogs are still relevant and useful: instead of trying to convey all this on Twitter, I just shared a link to this. Maybe not as many people will read all of my rant here, but I am less likely to be misunderstood and/or taken out of context.

Second, academics (and anyone else, for that matter) who take to Twitter to express strong (and controversial) beliefs can’t get too upset when they are held accountable in some fashion for expressing those beliefs, especially when those beliefs actually take more than 140 characters (sans Hitler references) to convey. Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for academic free speech and I’m not suggesting that Goldrick-Rab or Steven Salaita or any other academic ought to be fired over Tweets. I’m just saying that if an academic (or anyone else) posts provocative stuff on Twitter, they shouldn’t be too surprised if a) it offends people and/or b) the message gets passed around and gets out of the writer’s control in a hurry.

  • Having said all that, I think the executive committee of the University of Wisconsin faculty senate are behaving like a bunch of wimpy knuckleheads. First off, Goldrick-Rab didn’t tell those young people not to come to UW; she referred them to an op-ed piece in Milwaukee’s mainstream newspaper about the impact of Walker’s budget cuts and rollbacks/changes to tenure. These really are things that the faculty ought to be telling would-be students; keeping them in the dark doesn’t do the students any good and it kind of indirectly supports Walker et al’s decisions. Second, what the hell is the point of faculty senate if it isn’t going to defend the faculty’s right to speak? I’m sure there are some details I’m missing here, but as reported in CHE, these people are throwing one of their own ranks under the bus. That’s appalling.

“Jay Speaks” to “The Intercept:” A few miscellaneous thoughts

If you were a fan of the recent podcast Serial, you really need to read the three part series “Jay Speaks,” a three part interview with the Jay in the Serial show, Jay Wilds, conducted by Natasha Vargas-Cooper in The Intercept. The link I have there is actually to part 3 of the interview, but if you scroll to the bottom, you can get links to parts on and two.

If you haven’t heard Serial, this is likely to not make a lot of sense. But of course, I did listen to Serial and I thought was incredibly compelling, probably the first of its kind of long form journalism in the form of a podcast and as a story that evolved as it was reported, largely as a result of particularly active listeners, for better and worse. And this piece is mostly the “for worse” angle of things: basically, Jay feels like he was demonized by Sarah Koenig, which is the main reason why he’s talking to Vargas-Cooper.

A few thoughts:

Continue reading ““Jay Speaks” to “The Intercept:” A few miscellaneous thoughts”

Salaita and the limits (or lack thereof) of academic speech on social media

The latest installment in the story of academic freedom versus social media comes to us from one Steven Salaita. Here’s a long quote from this Salon piece, “Return of the blacklist?” that more or less sums up what seems to have happened to him:

A few weeks ago Steven Salaita had reason to be pleased.  After a full review by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had received a generous offer of a tenured, associate professor position there — the normal contract was offered, signed by the school, he had received confirmation of his salary, a teaching schedule, everything except the final approval of the UIUC chancellor.

In academia this is not at all unusual; departments and schools are told to go ahead with the offer, so as to be competitive with both the candidate’s current school and others that might be bidding for their talent.  Salaita is a world-renowned scholar of indigenous studies (and also a frequent Salon contributor). At that point, as required by academic protocols, upon accepting the position he resigned the one he held at Virginia Tech.

But final approval never came.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that “Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the University of Illinois system’s vice president for academic affairs, informed the job candidate, Steven G. Salaita, on Friday that they were effectively revoking a written offer of a tenured professorship made to him last year by refusing to submit it to the system’s Board of Trustees next month for confirmation.”

According to Inside Higher Education: “Sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.”  Nevertheless, IHE goes on to report: “But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told the News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”

This has been followed by a number of defenses of Salaita. I think the most articulate one I’ve read is from my long-time blogging friend Michael Bérubé, who at the AAUP blog defended Salaita’s academic freedoms. Among other smart things, Bérubé writes:

Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech; moreover, your decision effectively overrides legitimate faculty decision making and peer review in a way that is inconsistent with AAUP guidelines regarding governance. Those faculty members who engaged in the process of peer review for Professor Salaita cannot be said to have been unaware that he has strong opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict– as do many millions of people. To overturn faculty peer review on the basis of a Twitter feed, therefore, is to take a page straight from the Kansas playbook.

The “Kansas playbook” being about that state’s board of regents rather silly social media policy, which I blogged about way back here.

In a kind of interesting twist, former AAUP president Cary Nelson defended the University of Illinois’ decision to not hire/withdraw the offer to Salaita. He writes about it at Inside Higher Ed in “An Appointment to Reject,” and the basic premise of his argument seems to be two-fold. First, Nelson thinks Salaita’s tweets are horrific. Nelson quotes from several of them– and Salaita is a pretty crude dude– and calls him loathsome, sophomoric, irresponsible, sordid, bombastic, and anti-Semitic. But his second reason is more or less based on a technicality. He writes:

I should add that this is not an issue of academic freedom. If Salaita were a faculty member here and he were being sanctioned for his public statements, it would be. But a campus and its faculty members have the right to consider whether, for example, a job candidate’s publications, statements to the press, social media presence, public lectures, teaching profile, and so forth suggest he or she will make a positive contribution to the department, student life, and the community as a whole. Here at Illinois, even the department head who would have appointed Salaita agreed in Inside Higher Ed that “any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration.” Had Salaita already signed a contract, then of course he would have to have received full due process, including a full hearing, before his prospective offer could be withdrawn. But my understanding is that he had not received a contract.

And in the Chronicle of Higher Education article about all this, Nelson is quoted as saying “Academic freedom does not require you to hire someone whose views you consider despicable. It prevents you from firing someone from a job for their views.”

More thoughts after the break. Continue reading “Salaita and the limits (or lack thereof) of academic speech on social media”

Four (and a half?) thoughts on “social media” and academics– about Kansas and generally

Happy New Year! And I’m going to start off blogging in 2014 with something I meant to blog about a few weeks ago, a little bit about the “social media” and the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy against it.

I’m assuming most people who are reading this are familiar with what I’m talking about, but just in case: as reported here in the Lawrence (Kansas) World Journal, the state’s Board of Regents passed a policy where employees of the state’s universities can be fired for inappropriate use of social media. This apparently is the result of some tweets a journalism professor named David Guth had back in September about the shootings at the Navy Yard facility in DC.  The tweet that sent the Kansas board over the edge (apparently) was “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

I’ve got four (or so) thoughts/points I thought I’d share, but before I do, it seems to me like I ought to bracket all of this with a simple rhetorical question: What the hell is wrong with Kansas?  I mean, it isn’t just the board of regents that is a bunch of right-wingers, as this Rolling Stone piece from last June points out.

Anyway, more or less in this order:

First, for more and ongoing information on this, go read Phillip Nel’s blog, “Nine Kinds of Pie.” Specifically, you might want to check out this collection of links, which he says he’s going to keep updating. Nel is a professor at Kansas State who has been blogging about lots of stuff for a long time.  Good stuff.  And because he’s a Children’s Lit professor/scholar, Annette knows him.  Small world.

Second, this policy is so stupid it’s irrelevant. Probably. What I’m getting at is this is just so ridiculous and ill-conceived by a board who obviously doesn’t know how these things work that I just have a hard time believing that anyone working at a university in Kansas is actually going to get fired for a tweet. How exactly does this get enforced? Who’s going to be screening the tweets and facebook updates and blog posts of thousands of different employees? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would hold up in court, and it also seems to me like it would be pretty easy to circumvent in a variety of different ways– posting to social media anonymously, for example.

In a way, this all reminds me a bit of a rule/policy that was (supposedly) in place in Oregon when I was teaching at Southern Oregon University. As I understood it, faculty were not allowed to express a political viewpoint, meaning (basically?) it was against the rules for a faculty person to campaign for one political candidate or another. But the details about what this really meant were never clear to me. I suppose it would be against the rules to spend time in my classes explaining to students why they had to vote for so-and-so (which I wouldn’t do anyway), but it wasn’t clear to me if I was going to be violating this policy if I hung a campaign poster in my office or if I wore a campaign button while teaching or if I parked my car with a campaign bumper sticker on it in the faculty lot. When I asked people about this policy, they inevitably just rolled their eyes. And while I was only there for a couple of years, it seemed like a largely ignored policy to me.

Probably though. I think this “policy” will go away and this article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education implies that the board is rethinking things a bit. But like I said, Kansas is a pretty nutty state, and I for one wouldn’t want to be the professor in the Kansas system who is the “test case” for this rule.

Third, social media can be a good thing for universities, too. EMUTalk.org is a good example of that. This is more or less my “hobby” blog about EMU, though I always make it clear that this has nothing to do with my day job and it has no official connection with EMU.  I’ve been running the site for about seven years now, and while the number of hits varies quite a bit and it isn’t as high as it once was, I’m still getting on average about 10,000 hits there a month. A lot of it is critical/negative about EMU of course, but a lot of it is also positive and I think the site serves as a good source for unofficial news and campus gossip.

I also know that official folks at EMU feel the same way. I’ve met lots of them and I even get fairly regular “press release” kinds of information to post on the site from the PR folks.  And interestingly enough, no administrator-type at EMU has ever a) said anything negative to me about the site and/or b) suggested I ought to shut the site down/not publish something “or else.” I mean, I was never worried about my job because I’m a tenured full professor at a place with a strong faculty union that is not in Kansas, but I have to say that I am surprised that I haven’t received any blowback from the site.  Which brings me to my next point:

Fourth, there are consequences to all kinds of speech, and everyone– perhaps especially academics– ought to think before they tweet/post/otherwise share online.  I’m specifically not going to refer to a certain writer/blogger I reference in different ways in my two previous posts, though that’s an example of what I’m getting at. No speech is ever completely “free” and in normal face-to-face settings or in scholarship, and I think everyone understands that. If I say the wrong thing in a meeting with my department head or my colleagues, there are going to be some bad feelings and other repercussions. If I present/publish something in an academic setting that lots of other academics think is wrong, then these people will think less of me and my ideas.

But while we understand this in face to face/conventional settings, it seems like a lot of academics forget that these same rules apply online as well. There’s a false sense of intimacy created by social media: we feel like we are only posting on Facebook to our friends or to our Twitter followers, and it can feel like no one is really reading what we write. In many cases, that’s true– a lot of social media/the blogosphere goes unread or unnoticed– but anything posted online can also turn out to be awfully difficult to take back. Many years ago, educators worried about students posting things on social media that would come back to haunt them later. Now it seems like the educators are forgetting that the same is true with them.

So I’m not saying that a certain not to be named in this post rage-filled blogger/tweeter doesn’t have the right to write/post whatever she wants, and I’m not saying that David Guth didn’t have the right to post that tweet. I’m just saying that every speech act has consequences both wanted and unwanted, intended and not.

Oh, and I’m not saying I’m in favor of all of these consequences. Guth probably went too far in wishing ill upon the children of the NRA and “damning” them, but I understand his emotion and anger and his academic right to speech. I certainly don’t think this means he should get fired and I don’t think it justifies the Kansas policy.

The other example of Twitter and its consequences in the news right now is the Justine Sacco incident and this tweet:

And this post by someone who “was a communications executive for IAC, the parent company of a range of tech products such as Vimeo, CollegeHumor, and Dictionary.com.” You’d figure she wouldn’t forget the reach of social media!

Sacco was fired before her flight to Africa landed, and given who she worked for and what she did, that’s not that surprising. Though the online mob that wanted to kill and/or rape her was obviously out of line, that too is an example of unintended consequences. As I wrote about in my dissertation what seems like a million years ago now, the “immediacy” of rhetoric mediated in electronic environments can simultaneously be intimate and explosive.

“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

I got suckered into a point of purchase/cash register impulse buy the other day.  It was The Altantic, and the thing that got me was the cover headline “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”  I should have known better.  After all, this is the same magazine that brought us “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” a few years ago.

As was the case with the Nicholas Carr article (and I can now only assume that Stephen Marche, the author of this Facebook piece, is busily preparing a book-length treatment on his topic), I think the answer to his headline is “not really, but it’s more complicated than that.”  Marche is a clear and thoughtful writer, and if nothing else, I can see this being a useful reading in one of the various classes I teach where social media comes up as a topic, particularly undergraduate classes.  As I understand it, I think Marche is saying that a) there are lots of things that have increased “loneliness” (and we’ll get to whatever the heck that is supposed to mean in a moment), and b) it depends a lot on how you use Facebook.  Marche trots out a lot of pretty well-known bits of pop-research/knowledge on how suburbia, television, etc. (think of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) have caused us as a culture to be more lonely, all of which is to say that at its worse, Facebook is one among many contributors to loneliness.

And then there’s this quote paraprhasing John Cacioppo, who Marche calls the “world’s leading expert on loneliness” (and of course I need to point out that being the world’s leading expert on anything is lonely, and being the leading expert on loneliness has to be the most lonely of all):

Facebook is merely a tool, he says, and like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user.  “If you use Facebook to increase face-to-face contact,” he says, “it increases social capital.”  So of social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy.  If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.

Duh, right?  And I assume we can substitute “talk about issues of the day with people far away from you” or “meet for dinner and drinks” or “invite people to a party” for “football” and be fine.

Ultimately, I think this article raises a couple of questions that are different from the nature of social networks and Facebook per se.  First, how is it that psychologists study “loneliness?”  Because while Marche does a good job of citing/quoting from the scholarship on this, it all seems kind of sketchy to me– though, of course, this is not my area of expertise.  For example, according to Marche, the “best tool yet” for measuring loneliness is the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which is basically 10 questions, each of which begin “how often do you feel…”  Here’s a link to an interactive version based on the survey; for me, my answers boil down to “it depends.”

Second, I always wonder about the extent to which the issue is not really “loneliness” but the complex emotions and connotations of the word “friend,” and how Facebook’s choice of that word complicates our relations between “friends” on Facebook and our relationship/interactions with Facebook as an interface and a tool.  Would there be articles like this one if Facebook had chosen instead to call the people you connect with “contacts,” or “connections,” or “acquaintances?”  After all, my Facebook friends in “real life” actually range from “people I care about and love deeply” all the way down to “people I don’t know at all” and even a few “people I actually don’t like or trust.”   What if we instead had “followers” ala Twitter, a social network which (at least so far) seems significantly less emotionally loaded than Facebook?  What if Facebook had always had categories of designating the degree of friendship and the nature of the connection, sort of like the professional Linkedin?

So, even though Marche is suggesting Facebook as a service is making us lonely and disconnected (and it’s not as if he’s the first person to make this claim), I think the real anxiety around Facebook is with its implications on “friendship.”  Facebook flattens the inherent hierarchy of friendship and relationships, putting “BFFs,” boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses, ex-Sig-Os, frenemies, work colleagues, people you went to high school with, and Velveeta Cheese all in the same big bucket– and let’s not forget that’s a bucket Facebook draws on to sell us specifically targeted ads.   It is nerve-racking and anxiety-inducing to think that my friendship status with people and products are on Facebook essentially the same thing.

On Occupy UC Davis and its memes

Jeff Rice posted just the other day about the well-publicized UC-Davis pepper-spraying incident November 18, part of their Occupy protest on that campus.  More accurately, Jeff wrote about this photo. I’m linking here to the YouTube video, in part because I think it shows a little more nuance in terms of the event.  But the photo and its remixes are also important, as I’ll get to in a moment.

Jeff wrote (among other things, of course):

With the spraying photo, we immediately “know”  that someone should be fired because of this immediacy of emotional response. Barthes might call this response the arrogance of affirmation. Regardless, and as many note regarding the sense of immediacy or involvement digital dissemination allows for, we believe we know. We believe we know many things, but as the Occupy movement continues to demand attention, we believe we know this moment. We know based on a single image of a man pepper spraying kneeling protesters.

These are rhetorical questions and not value based questions. And they deserve some meta attention as well: The blog response, too, participates in such immediacy. I immediately blog in response to the photograph. My emotional response is different than what is publicly expressed regarding the photography, but it is still immediate (a focus of Internet critique – we don’t think through our ideas). Overall, then, I’m intrigued by immediacy in ways others are as well – via the blog or the photo. Immediacy is central to digital expression and understanding. We may not entirely understand that point yet.

Now, I assume he isn’t referring to my dissertation about this, but that word “immediacy” was/is an important one for me.  In my diss (this is a archive version– I think there is some kind of server problem as I write this), I write about immediate situations as being ones where digital media transform analog rhetorical situations.  In my dissertation, the examples were from the earlier, mid-90s version of the internets– email and basic web sites, for example.  As I wrote about it and as I still think about it now (I’ve been slowly going back to revising my diss since I have finally comes to terms to the whole process), immediacy has complicated connotations.  Rhetorical situations/events that are immediate are simultaneously very close to us and also very sudden, so they are thus intimate and chaotic.

The entire Occupy Wall Street situation (which I wrote about here earlier) is the larger and/or source situation for this most recent event, and that could lead to an entirely different discussion that I’m not going to go into now about what exactly constitutes a “rhetorical situation?”  Is it possible that a few years from now that we will think of the UC Davis protest as being unique relative to the Occupy Wall Street protests, sort of like the way the shootings at Kent State in 1970 have come to be seen as its own event and not inherently a part of the larger protests against war in Viet Nam and southeast Asia.

Regardless, I think this qualifies as a particularly immediate event in that it is transmitted to most of us (other than those who were there, of course) electronically and virally via YouTube.  On the one hand, there is a context that is missing here, including warnings before the spraying about the need to move or else.  But the casualness and brutality of the spraying here is hard to miss, and despite the bizarre interpretation of the event that took place on Fox (it’s just a vegetable), there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground here.  This was just bad.

Which maybe why the meme parodies began so quickly, notably at the tumblr site Pepper Spraying Cop.  Jenny Edbauer (Rice’s) “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies” probably speaks to this sort of meme/viral media event, and one of these days, I want to go back and read that essay again.  Maybe one of these days soon.  But I think that one of the reasons why the parody/humor here works is because the event itself– again, because of the proximity we have to it via digital media– is so obviously one-sided and indefensible that it lends itself to parody.  And the way the image itself functions in relation to readily available Photoshop-like technology also is at play here:  contemporary digital media and technology makes it possible for those who would previously be restricted to an audience role to themselves become rhetors/speakers in this particular situation.

It’s hard to say to what effect.  I suppose it is possible that the hundreds (thousands?) meme parodies of Lt. Pike’s casual pepper spray could create a distance from the actual horrible event itself.  We don’t want to forget that all this fun has a pretty nasty origin point.  Then again, maybe it is preciously the meme that keeps this (and the entire point of the Occupy movement) on the publics’ minds.

A few brief thoughts on Google +

As someone who has been on Google Plus for a little less than a week now, I too am a bona fide expert on this new social network– or at least as much of an expert as the people who haven’t really used it for anything yet but speculate on its usefulness.  For example, ProfHacker has a post here about it, and they point to an article in GradHacker here.

It is far FAR too early for anyone (certainly me, as an expert) to speculate too much about what G+ is for (or not); that said, let me speculate a bit on what G+ is for (or not):

  • Everyone seems most excited/interested in talking about hot G+ allows you to set up “circles” that sort out who you connect with and for what purposes.  For example, some of my circles are “comp rhet folk,” “EMU,” “Friends.”  So far, the vast majority of people I’m following are in the “comp rhet folk” circle and are fellow geeky-types who are mostly kicking the G+ tires.  Anyway, this is not that big a selling point over Facebook for me because I’ve been setting up groups for Facebook for a long time now.  I spent one afternoon a year or so ago putting all of my “friends” into lists, and I have a couple of lists (for example, “students”) which I regularly do not post updates to.  If that makes sense.  So while I agree that G+ makes it a lot easier to sort out friends, it is not as if this is completely impossible on Facebook.
  • One thing that is a lot easier with G+ is to “start over” in terms of the whole social networking thing.  If I were to do Facebook all over again, I wouldn’t have friended everyone I have; in fact, I might have even left FB to just the handful of “real friends” I have out there.
  • The most potentially useful part of this is the poorly named “Hangout,” which is group video chat, basically.  I haven’t used this yet and I am kind of dubious as to how well the group chat will work technically, but I can definitely see the point in trying to use this kind of tool for teaching, particularly for online teaching.
  • I’m a big fan of just about all things Google.  I love gmail and google reader– use them every day– and google docs and google sites are go-to places for me for teaching, working with collaborators, etc., etc.  Having said that, I have to wonder what is “in it for them” with G+.  Sure, Facebook is kinda evil, which is why it is useful to try to a) figure out how to set various privacy setting there, and b) remember that whatever you post on Facebook doesn’t just stay on Facebook between you and your friends.  But always remember that Google is primarily a media company, so how will they use this new service to sell ads and/or mine user data? (And BTW, literally as I am writing this, Jeff “Yellow Dog” Rice just posted about this very topic in some interesting ways.  And I also just came across this somewhat alarming discussion of the issues of privacy on ZDNet).
  • Right now, G+ feels a little to me like Ning.  As they describe it on their web site, Ning lets you “create your own social web site.”  This was at one point pretty popular with some of my MA students/colleagues interested in secondary education I think because it gave teachers the chance to “control” a social setting.  So you had some of the advantages of  a social network site but while closing out all the “nasty bits” of the internets and MySpace and such, those “real world” elements that secondary schools are always trying to make sure do not leak into the closed world of classrooms.  Well, the problem with creating your own social network is it isn’t really too “social” (and/or much of a party) if people aren’t showing up.  Which makes me wonder if G+ will go the route of Wave or Ning.  On the other hand….
  • … Who knows?  Before MySpace was “the place” to be, there was Friendster; and before Facebook was it, there was MySpace, which was sold off very recently for what is a relatively measly $35 million.  So who knows where we’ll be in a year?  Right now, G+ is mostly a curiosity and one that makes me think more about my relationship with Facebook more than anything else, but a year or so from now, maybe it’ll be the “go to” social network and Facebook will all but done.  And then my mom will join G+ and the “cool kids” will be on to the next thing.

A quick post on 9/11, killing Bin Laden, and the Internets

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home not feeling particularly well– a cold or something.  I mowed the lawn, and then came in and just happened to turn on the TV and saw a story about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers, a crash that network news first reported as an accident.  Until the next plane hit, and then the Pentagon, and then a field in Pennsylvania. I think it’s fair to say that pretty much everyone in the U.S. (maybe the western world) who had a television (especially with cable) spent the next 72 hours or so watching the news, with breaks to nap, go to the bathroom, and drink.

Ten years passed and many many things happened.

Then, Sunday night (which, oddly enough, was the eighth anniversary of Bush’s infamous “mission accomplished” speech) I was getting into bed with my iPad at 10 pm or so, planning to read a bit on the kindle app before getting to sleep and ready for the beginning of the spring term.  I checked Facebook first and saw someone (I can’t remember who) in my feed had posted that Obama was giving a previously unannounced speech at 10:30.  Uh-oh, I thought, and got out of bed to turn on the TV, my iPad (with Twitter and Facebook) by my side.

You know the rest, and I am sure there will be many more examples of this sort of piece that is running on The Atlantic’s web site.

Anyway, that makes me think of at least two things:

  • 9/11 was a very clear “exigency” in that it was obviously the beginning of a new situation, although arguably from the point of view of Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and related groups, 9/11 was merely the middle of a fight that began much much earlier– CIA involvement in Afghanistan,  The 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Africa, etc.  On the other hand, the death of Bin Laden doesn’t seem like an “ending” or a “decay” of this situation.
  • I’m not quite sure what it means that I have heard about this (and nearly all other “breaking news” in the last year or so) first via Facebook and/or Twitter, and then I follow it up with live coverage on TV, and then still later, with writings published on the web or even on paper.  But it means something for sure, something about what “main stream media” is and is not still  capable of doing well.