Trump is a virus, and mainstream media are the host

Insightful piece in The Atlantic:

The most recent controversy provides the perfect metaphor for Trump’s part-symbiotic, part-parasitic relationship with the media: infection. In epidemiology, a virus cannot multiply on its own. First, it must find a host, whose cellular machinery it commandeers to reproduce. For a virus, all distribution—all amplification—is infection.

So it is for Trump. The president’s conspiratorial language is an odious virus that has found a variety of hosts in the U.S. media ecosystem. The traditional news media amplify his words for a variety of reasons, including newsworthiness (he is, after all, the president), easy ratings (cable-news audiences have soared in his term), and old-fashioned peer pressure (the segment producer’s lament: “If everybody else is carrying Trump, shouldn’t we?”).

But a virus doesn’t just borrow a host’s cellular factory to reproduce; it often destroys the host in the process. So, too, does the president seek to destroy the traditional news media that have often amplified his messages…

So why do editors publish headlines which essentially just paraphrase Trump’s tweets? Especially when they know that most readers only read (and remember) the headline.

The Internet is morphing into billion-channel TV

This is a sobering illustration. Netflix and YouTube now account for over a quarter of global data traffic on the network. The technology that was supposed to liberate people’s creativity, enable anyone to become a global publisher, foster user-generated-content and what Yochai Benkler called ‘peer production’, etc. etc. is evolving into billion-channel TV — a paradise for couch-potatoes. Mencken would not have been surprised. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the passivity of the average consumer.

Source

Does TV damage your sex life?

When I was a kid people used to say that television had ruined the art of conversation. Strangely, this assertion was often made by pompous people who were not exactly noted conversationalists. And I had a friend who used to say that the best conversations in his house were between him and the TV. But now some economists have tackled the much more important question of whether TV affects viewers’ sex lives. This NBER paper — “Does Television Kill Your Sex Life? Microeconometric Evidence from 80 Countries”, by Adrienne Lucas and Nicholas Wilson, argues that it does.

The Abstract reads, in part:

This paper examines the association between television ownership and coital frequency using data from nearly 4 million individuals in national household surveys in 80 countries from 5 continents. The results suggest that while television may not kill your sex life, it is associated with some sex life morbidity. Under our most conservative estimate, we find that television ownership is associated with approximately a 6% reduction in the likelihood of having had sex in the past week, consistent with a small degree of substitutability between television viewing and sexual activity. Household wealth and reproductive health knowledge do not appear to be driving this association.

So now we know!

Does media coverage drive populism? Or is it the other way round?

Very interesting piece of academic research. Title is: “Does Media Coverage Drive Public Support for UKIP or Does Public Support for UKIP Drive Media Coverage?”

Abstract reads:

Previous research suggests media attention may increase support for populist right-wing parties, but extant evidence is mostly limited to proportional representation systems in which such an effect would be most likely. At the same time, in the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post system, an ongoing political and regulatory debate revolves around whether the media give disproportionate coverage to the populist right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP). This study uses a mixed-methods research design to investigate the causal dynamics of UKIP support and media coverage as an especially valuable case. Vector autoregression, using monthly, aggregate time-series data from January 2004 to April 2017, provides new evidence consistent with a model in which media coverage drives party support, but not vice versa. The article identifies key periods in which stagnating or declining support for UKIP is followed by increases in media coverage and subsequent increases in public support. The findings show that media coverage may drive public support for right-wing populist parties in a substantively non-trivial fashion that is irreducible to previous levels of public support, even in a national institutional environment least supportive of such an effect. The findings have implications for political debates in the UK and potentially other liberal democracies.

The unhinged discourse around AI

Useful essay in the Guardian by Oscar Schwartz on the clickbait-driven inanity of public discourse about AI. Sample:

Zachary Lipton, an assistant professor at the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, watched with frustration as this story transformed from “interesting-ish research” to “sensationalized crap”.

According to Lipton, in recent years broader interest in topics like “machine learning” and “deep learning” has led to a deluge of this type of opportunistic journalism, which misrepresents research for the purpose of generating retweets and clicks – he calls it the “AI misinformation epidemic”. A growing number of researchers working in the field share Lipton’s frustration, and worry that the inaccurate and speculative stories about AI, like the Facebook story, will create unrealistic expectations for the field, which could ultimately threaten future progress and the responsible application of new technologies.

Good stuff. Lipton’s blog is terrific btw.

One quick tip for improving coverage. Most stuff labelled as “AI” is actually just machine learning. So why not say that?

Implications of Facebook’s changed newsfeed curation algorithms

Interesting piece in *Slate about the impact of news publishers of Facebook’s new-found desire to escape from news.

Slate — yes, the publication you’re reading right now — got more than 85 million clicks that originated from external sites and apps in January 2017 alone. Almost a third of them — 28 million—came from Facebook. That was more than any other single outside traffic source. Other online publications with a political focus, such as Vox and Politico, posted similarly blockbuster numbers.

It was, in retrospect, the zenith of Facebook’s influence over the news industry. Starting in about 2013, when the social network began prioritizing actual news in users’ news feed rankings—the order in which posts appear when you scroll through its app or site—Facebook had grown increasingly critical to many media outlets’ business, for better or worse. Every visitor the social network sent to an outlet’s pages translated to much-needed ad views. And it sent so many that newsrooms remolded their editorial strategies to maximize clicks, likes, and shares on Facebook. For less scrupulous publishers, that sometimes meant sensationalizing headlines or framing stories in ways that pandered to people’s biases—a trend that Facebook tried to combat algorithmically, with limited success. By August 2016, the New York Timess’ John Herrman wrote that Facebook had “centralized online news consumption in an unprecedented way,” shaping how the public perceived politics by determining which stories they’d see in their feeds. And by 2017, some antitrust thinkers concerned with its centrality to the news business were calling for Facebook to be regulated as a monopoly.

The AT&T judgment shows how how far US antitrust law has drifted

In today’s FT, the paper’s US Editor trumpets the Circuit Court’s approval of the AT&T-Time-Warner merger as evidence of the resilience of the judicial system in the face of Trump’s aggression. (He has regularly spouted his opposition to the deal.) But Tim Wu sees it more of a confirmation of how far antitrust law and judicial interpretation has drifted from the original determination of Congress to prevent corporate agglomeration.

When Congress enacted the Anti-Merger Act of 1950, the law by which American courts still adjudge corporate mergers, it did so with the repeatedly stated goal of fighting excessive economic concentration. The “dominant” concern, as the Supreme Court wrote in a 1962 merger case that analyzed the law, was about “a rising tide of economic concentration in the American economy.” At the time, the court explained, a wave of corporate consolidation posed the threat of an “accelerated concentration of economic power” and also a “threat to other values,” like the independence of smaller businesses and local control of industry. In particular Congress had said it intended the new law to stop a wave of mergers in its “incipiency.”

That’s why, for the 1950 Congress, the law would surely have allowed the Justice Department to block the recent AT&T-Time Warner merger. The merger, which a federal judge approved on Tuesday, combines AT&T, the nation’s largest wireless provider and a major seller of pay TV, with Time Warner, one of the most powerful media companies, in an $85 billion deal. No one can deny that the new AT&T will have more economic power and also more political power than before, even as it now carries more debt ($181 billion) than many industrialized nations. The ruling, by Judge Richard J. Leon of United States District Court in Washington, implicitly encourages the rest of the industry to integrate as well, and AT&T’s comrades have taken the hint: Comcast has already announced its intent to acquire much of 20th Century Fox, while other deals are said to be imminent.

Judge Leon’s decision shows just how far the law has wandered from congressional intent. The law has become a license for near-uncontrolled consolidation and concentration in almost every sector of economy. Whether involving airlines, hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry, cable television or the major tech platforms, mergers leading to oligopolies or monopolies have become commonplace…

Yep.

Interesting uses for blockchain technology #15610

From a lovely rant by Paul Ford:

The blockchain can be a form of media. The writer Maria Bustillos is starting a magazine that will publish on the blockchain — which means it will be impossible to take down. (Disclosure: In theory, I’ll write for Maria, who’s a friend, and she’ll pay me in cryptocurrency, or what she calls “space jewels.”) One of her aims is to make it impossible for people—Peter Thiel, for example, who backed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker—to threaten publications they dislike.

You could even make a distributed magazine called Information of Vital Public Interest About Peter Thiel that would be awfully hard to sue into oblivion. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Literally. Try another thought experiment. Remember that anonymously created list of men who worked in media and who were alleged sexual harassers? You could, by whispering the allegations from one wallet to the next, put that information on a blockchain. You could make a web browser plug-in so that whenever someone visited a sexual harasser’s LinkedIn page, that page could glow bright red. You could have a distributed, immutable record of sexual harassment allegations on the internet. (Is there an economy around such allegations? Well, people do pay for gossip. GossipCoin?)

The bad news about false news

The most comprehensive study to date of misinformation on Twitter is out. The Abstract reads:

We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.