Rule #1: stop tweeting. And if you must use Twitter, just lurk

From Farhad Manjoo:

I’ve significantly cut back how much time I spend on Twitter, and — other than to self-servingly promote my articles and engage with my readers — I almost never tweet about the news anymore.

I began pulling back last year — not because I’m morally superior to other journalists but because I worried I was weaker.

I’ve been a Twitter addict since Twitter was founded. For years, I tweeted every ingenious and idiotic thought that came into my head, whenever, wherever; I tweeted from my wedding and during my kids’ births, and there was little more pleasing in life than hanging out on Twitter poring over hot news as it broke.

But Twitter is not that carefree clubhouse for journalism anymore. Instead it is the epicenter of a nonstop information war, an almost comically undermanaged gladiatorial arena where activists and disinformation artists and politicians and marketers gather to target and influence the wider media world.

And journalists should stop paying so much attention to what goes on in this toxic information sewer.

Trump meets his match on social media

Interesting column by Jack Shafer on Politico:

Setting aside for a moment the fact that Trump and Ocasio-Cortez don’t agree on anything, the two New Yorkers with Queens connections have a lot in common. Both made their political marks as outsiders, collapsing traditional power structures from within to become political celebrities. Both ran thrifty campaigns, substituting news coverage for advertising. Trump proved at the ballot box that Republican voters held no real allegiance among to the usual conservative stands on trade, immigration and foreign policy. Ocasio-Cortez likewise toppled a tenured insider, Joe Crowley, in a primary by catching him coasting.

Both command Twitter brigades in the millions—Ocasio-Cortez 2.63 million (up from 379,000 in July) and Trump 57.7 million—and use their audiences to delight their friends and aggravate their enemies. Ensconced in Washington, the pair has sustained their newsworthiness by jousting against their opposition and their putative allies, and this tension adds to their media appeal. On any given day, there are probably as many high-ranking members of their own party gunning for them as high rankers from the other side of the aisle. From mid-December to mid-January, reported Axios, Ocasio-Cortez generated 14 million interactions (retweets plus likes), twice as many as Sen. Kamala Harris, and almost six times as many as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer. To give you a sense of scale, CNN generated only 3 million interactions in the interval.

He also reveals something interesting about Trump — that he immediately spotted the significance of AOC:

Last August, Trump told Bloomberg News of his first encounter with her in his usual rambling style, and it’s unusually flattering:

“So I’m watching television, and I see this young woman on television. I say, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, she’s campaigning against Joe.’

“You know who Joe is, right? So Queens. Crowley. So I say, ‘Ah, let me just watch her for a second’— wonderful thing, TiVo. So you go back —‘huh, tell him he’s going to lose.’”

As they say, it takes one to know one.

Media credulity and AI hype

This morning’s Observer column:

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a term that is now widely used (and abused), loosely defined and mostly misunderstood. Much the same might be said of, say, quantum physics. But there is one important difference, for whereas quantum phenomena are not likely to have much of a direct impact on the lives of most people, one particular manifestation of AI – machine-learning – is already having a measurable impact on most of us.

The tech giants that own and control the technology have plans to exponentially increase that impact and to that end have crafted a distinctive narrative. Crudely summarised, it goes like this: “While there may be odd glitches and the occasional regrettable downside on the way to a glorious future, on balance AI will be good for humanity. Oh – and by the way – its progress is unstoppable, so don’t worry your silly little heads fretting about it because we take ethics very seriously.”

Critical analysis of this narrative suggests that the formula for creating it involves mixing one part fact with three parts self-serving corporate cant and one part tech-fantasy emitted by geeks who regularly inhale their own exhaust…

Read on

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.