Saturday, May 30, 2009


What do people know about Obama's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court? A little, enough at least to offer an opinion. About one-in-five were "unsure" in offering an opinion about Sonia Sotomayor, according to one national poll. Only about a quarter of all polled had a negative opinion of her -- hardly good news for the GOPers hoping to challenge her nomination to the high court.

But here's some good news if you're Rush Limbaugh -- yes the Dems like her, yes Republicans don't (big surprise), but among self-described "Independents" a quarter of them had a negative opinion. That's kinda interesting and it leaves a window of opportunity for the Hannities of the world to define her as they see fit.

Painting her as a racist is going to be interesting given the people waving the paint brush (Limbaugh, Gingrich, et. al). Irony, much? You want racism, look at our chief justice's history. But I doubt that'll come up on Fox News.

Anyway, the numbers suggest this may not be the slam dunk the Obama folks hoped for. If I were betting then I'd place serious money on her getting through, but there may be a little blood in the water and the sharks are starting to get a bit frenzied. And don't ya know the cable news talking heads will froth at the mouth.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Short Stuff

Just a few bits and pieces found on the net.
  • If you follow Pennsylvania politics, you can take this quiz and see how much you really know (I didn't even try).
  • What is political ignorance? An economist and blogger explores the topic. At the bottom you can follow to later links and discussion.
  • A new book argues that to advance our understanding of political knowledge we must consider five principal areas of research: the traditional model, heuristic models, impression-driven models, affect-based models, and models of operative knowledge. I plan on reading the full chapter soon. Will report back.
  • Perhaps people don't do well on political knowledge tests because they're just not motivated to try hard. That's the focus of this conference paper (abstract only).

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Of Liberals and Conservatives

Interesting Nicholas Kristof column in today's NYTimes that touches on some of the recent social science research on how liberals and conservatives differ (other than the obvious stuff, such as liking Obama).

He manages to get at selective exposure, political perceptions, moral values, and a host of other favorites in the social science arena, all in one quick column. Basically the argument is this: liberals and conservatives differ not only on the obvious political preferences but also in basic moral values. That isn't a surprise to the talk show blowhards, but it's deeper than they realize. Liberals like fairness and prevention of harm, conservatives focus on authority, loyalty, and "revulsion at disgust." And some of it is just plain weird. You can tell a conservative by the level of disgust registered at nasty smells or stepping on squishy things or using a public toilet.

For those of you who read the classic The Authoritarian Personality, some of this comes as no surprise. Then again, I'm fairly certain the classic book failed to mention toilets.

Kristof mentions a web site terribly busy today and hard to reach: Try again in a few days, once the post-NYTimes attention eases.

This all kinda fits something I blogged about a couple of days ago, how journalism needs to look to social science for fresh material, for intellectual scoops, for new ways of helping people understand the world.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Nothing like a journal rejection to start your day, this on a manuscript so much better than a previous one the same journal had accepted with only minor revisions and quickly published. Gotta love the crapshoot that is peer review. Time to rework it then shop the thing around in hopes of finding it a good home. Already have a target in mind.

In other off-topic news, working on my Public Opinion seminar syllabus. Scouring the net for good stuff and trying to plot out my day-to-day discussion topics. It's a summer seminar that meets too many days in a week for too many hours in a day.

In yet more off-topic news, in about an hour it's Manchester United vs. Barcelona. Go Barca!

And in a final bit of off-topic, off-blog news, my data analysis on a new manuscript absolutely sucks. Not sure what to do -- toss the zillion hours of work I've put into it, or try to salvage something? It's on a topic I love (wishful thinking and predictive accuracy), but the data simply are not cooperating. Not sure what to do.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's Still the Economy Stupid

A Pew report shows people are still all about the economy. More than 4-in-10 follow economic news "very closely." This is one of those times when Main Street meets Inside-the-Beltway brainiacs, when the struggles of average people coincide with journalistic coverage, when politicians actually have a clue.

Okay, that last one goes a bit too far.

Not all is well in newsland. Just a few minutes of CNN/Fox/MSNBC/et. al and you quickly realize they can't report on anything unless there's a dash of partisan or ideological seasoning tossed into the recipe. TV News = haul out a tired hack from the left, a tired hack from the right, and let each have his or her say, in 30 seconds, which isn't enough time to explore these complex problems. Sigh.

In more important news, one-in-five people followed American Idol "fairly closely" or "very closely." In what people know, a crappy TV show with even crappier talent really matters.

Interesting data point. American Idol's shrinking audience over the past three years has happened more among the youngest and oldest viewers, but not the 40-to-64 age bracket, a group that stayed more or less constant in its love of bad TV. Parents show a huge drop, non-parents almost no drop. Weird, but I honestly don't care enough to tease out meaning from this odd yet fascinating statistical datum.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Intellectual Scoops

I was reading this past weekend a NYTimes piece on the Newsweek Magazine redesign and the struggles news magazines face in a fragmented media marketplace. No longer do we go to the weekly news magazines for breaking news, so the editor said the mag had to now focus on "intellectual scoops."

The phrase struck a cord.

Some call this "value added" journalism, the notion that breaking news is always out there and available -- and free -- so journalists need to focus on stories you won't find elsewhere, or stories with angles no one has considered, or scoops that tickle the brain and make you see something in a new light.

Journalism, meet Social Science.

Some journalists make a nice living scouring the world of social science for stories to tell (for example, see Blink by Malcolm Gladwell). As a practicing social scientist and former journalist (now j-prof) I straddle both worlds and in this blog I try to tie them together, but I firmly believe there are ways journalists can exploit the world of social science for those intellectual scoops that look at the world's problems in a new and interesting light, one likely to get an audience.

The key, of course, is to step away from the usual practice of "he said-she said" stenographic journalism.

The NYTimes does this better than any news organization. The problem for journalists is that many are ill-equipped to understand the arcane analysis found in most academic journals. As the writer of many arcane academic pieces destined to be read by an audience in the tens of people, I can say that they're written for a handful of experts and not a general audience.

Then again, journalism is often about taking the complex and making is less so. Journalists need to understand the tools and trends of social science (and hard sciences too) and make this stuff understandable. Not only that, but they need to be well read enough to make those terrific "intellectual scoops" that academics themselves miss because we are mired in theory and method, not often in real-world applications.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Need to Know, and the Need to Feel

There's been a shift in the news media audience in the past 10 years or so. Yes, it's fragmented. Yes, it's shrunk. But interesting to me is how people seem to be shifting from a need to know to a need to feel.

News media serve a surveillance function for many people. Journalists feed the need to know, the need to keep up with what's happening, a sense of connectedness and knowledge that many people find vital, if not absolutely necessary, to get through their day either because of jobs or because they're news junkies.

But of late, with the growth of TV and radio talk shows but most especially thanks to cable TV news, there has been a replacing of the need to know with the need to feel.

Talkmeisters of all partisan stripes, from Lou Dobbs to Sean Hannity sell one thing today and it's not knowledge. It's anger and frustration and righteous indignation. Sure, they pepper their gabbing with bits of information, but even a fan has to acknowledge the info is skewed, that straw men are set up and knocked down. Hannity and Bill O'Reilly can't do a show without name calling, for example, and they often falsely or incompletely portray the other side. No wonder they hate the idea of a fairness doctrine (btw, so do I).

They want people to feel more than they want people to know.

If they wanted people to know they'd offer fairer portrayals of the other side. If they wanted people to know they'd cover topics other than those laced with partisan and ideological intrigue -- some of it nonexistent except in their own minds (saving Christmas? Jeez, ever walk into a real store?). If they wanted people to know they wouldn't openly mislead, which happens all the time on these programs (don't even get me started on how they screw up science to fit their partisan beliefs).

But people don't want to know so much as they want to know what to feel.

All news, especially cable TV news, continues to edge this way. The news audience as a whole has shrunk and as a result has become more partisan and ideological. The battle is on for this smaller yet passionate group and the results ain't pretty. CNN dodges left and right trying to find an audience. Fox News has been doing this bit for years, spending more time talking about the news than actually covering it. MSNBC is doing well with a small, loyal liberal audience. Foundering newspapers may be next to get on the bandwagon, but I don't know if it'll save 'em.

In some ways this is not so bad. I think we'll see the growth of advocacy journalism not unlike, in superficial ways at least, the old partisan press prior to the 1830s. This will free journalists and cause innumerable problems as well, but that's for another post. Indeed I've proposed an undergraduate class in advocacy journalism to explore what I think our new journalism will look like -- even offered to swap out a graduate class to teach it -- but I've heard nada from my boss. Ah well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

NCIS, CSI, and the News

Reading reader comments about online news stories is the intellectual equivalent of shoving your brain in a blender and setting it to liquefy.

As an exercise in self-loathing, I read reader comments. As torture goes this is far below waterboarding, but worse than rubbing salt in an open sore. It usually takes only a short while before comments veer into racism, sexism, or some other -ism.

But what's truly interesting is to read them with this in mind -- these people watch way too much TV. And what's worse, it affects their perceptions of reality.

Case in point, crime stories. Read some online site's crime reporting, then look at the comments. Many think solving crime should take no more than 60 minutes, including commercial breaks, using superduper forensic techniques that don't really exist, done by Einstein-like scientists who don't really exist, and then cleverly used in an interrogation or cross-examination in situations that never ever happen in real world policing or courtroom situations.

Budding mass comm scholars know this as cultivation theory, at least in part, but it really comes down to how watching TV skews our perception of the world. What people know about a lot of professions out there like cops and lawyers is based on what they see on TV. As a former cops/courts reporter, I know that the real world is nowhere as neat as what you see on NCIS or CSI:Cleveland or whatever the hell else people watch that must, by law, include some acronym. I've sat through too many real trials, worked too many crime scenes, to think for a minute TV has it even close to reality, but it's fun to read comments by these pseudo-experts as they criticize their local cops because they can't solve crimes like on TV. No, they don't actually say it that way, you have to read between the lines, but the masscomm effect is there. You just gotta know where to look for it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Moral Values Double!

The percentage of people who say the moral values in this country are excellent has -- doubled! Okay, it's gone only from 1 percent to 2 percent. Well within the margin of error, and kinda embarrassing.

Gallup asks: "Thinking for a moment about moral values: How would you rate the overall state of moral values in this country today -- as excellent, good, only fair, or poor?"

The latest numbers from May 5-10 have 2 percent saying "excellent" and it gets worse and worse after that: 15 percent "good" and 37 percent "only fair" and 45 percent "poor." For you math majors, that leaves 1 percent "unsure" what moral values are, why they're being asked about them when they have better things to do. In 2008 there were 2 percent saying "excellent" and years after that, just 1 percent.

"Poor" has steadily increased over the years, from 40 to 45 percent, pulling about the same from the other two categories of "good" and "only fair." Not sure what that means other than movement toward the extremes of the scale, which is a bit unusual methodologically but may be a function of growing partisanship. Dunno.

What people know about the moral values of the nation is partly a function of the media, partly what they deal with in their daily lives. Celebrated moral disasters can tweak the national numbers in a fairly consistent direction, but there's usually a recovery. The individual stuff is impossible to predict and I'd think personal experiences cancel one another out.

Does this stuff matter? Like trust in major institutions, the answer is yes. There needs to be some reservoir to draw on when things get tough -- trust, perception of morality, all the bits and pieces necessary to draw people together to meet a challenge, be it the economy or anything else. Everyone doesn't have to be trusting. There are the cynical, or the fashionably cynical who haven't really earned the right to be yet, but like the poor those folks will always be with us. We also need that reservoir of optimism, and that's something that's always been there in the U.S., though less so now than perhaps several decades ago.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Down Under Citizenship

In politics, participation and knowledge are intertwined. One leads to the other, feeds the other, creates what some call a virtuous circle.

According to this report, not everyone -- in this case young Australians -- are all that excited about voting (the ultimate participatory act).

Here's the first two graphs:
Australian youth are showing extreme apathy towards their right to vote, with 20 per cent not enrolled to vote, and close to half saying they wouldn't vote if it wasn't compulsory, new University of Sydney research shows.

However the research found that if your kids attend a private school, study politics or civics, and engage with their school community, then they're more likely to vote come election time.

Specifically on media and political communication:
The study also looked at where young people gain their knowledge of Australian politics. Over the past two decades, the number of young people relying on the media for information has declined, with students favouring advice from parents and teachers. In spite of this, the study found newspapers' reputations remain strong, declaring them, "the most effective source of political knowledge."

We are certainly seeing a massive shift in where people get their news, especially young people. They get it from friends, they get it from Facebook postings, they read a tweet or two from Twitter, they scan headlines and they, sometimes, actually read. Print is superior. There's no doubt. But depth reading of print is going down, which is too bad.

Anyway, interesting that we're seeing many of the same changes regardless of the nation studied. Not sure that's comforting, but it is interesting.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Knowledge about the Supreme Court

I've blogged a number of times about problems the American National Election Studies had in how they coded certain of their political knowledge questions. This came up because some scholars studying people's knowledge of the U.S. Supreme Court or its justices found inconsistencies in the ANES data, at least that didn't match what their own data showed. There's a good ANES report on just this problem.

Now the study these scholars was working on has been published. Below is a key graph describing some of the coding problems. It's worth a read for the methodologically inclined:

But these are not the only limitations plaguing this approach to measuring political knowledge. Most worrisome, in one instance, the ANES required its interviewers to code the accuracy of the respondents’ answers to the knowledge question during the interview itself, apparently using quite stringent criteria. Thus, if one replies that William Rehnquist is ‘‘the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court,’’ the interviewer would, according to ANES coding rules, record the answer as ‘‘correct’’ (even though the official title of the leader of the Court is the ‘‘Chief Justice of the United States’’). Also according to the ANES rules, references to Rehnquist as a Supreme Court judge who is the head honcho or main guy or the main one are scored as incorrect. According to these strict procedures, only 10.5% of the respondents ‘‘correctly’’ identified Rehnquist in the 2000 ANES.

Basically the open-ended responses were miscoded, or coded too strictly, or at times not even accurately when considering the official title of the chief justice. This affects a small but significant number of responses, which in turn can influence not only our evaluations of what people know about the Supreme Court but the consequences of that knowledge when examining its relationship with other variables. For example, the authors examine the role knowledge has in institutional loyalty.

Ultimately, they write:
But we do assert that the image of the American people as entirely bereft of information about courts, as ignorant of their role in the American democracy and their importance as makers of public policy, and as oblivious to the nature of judicial institutions and processes, most likely undercredits ordinary people.

In other words, the "Just How Stupid Are We" question becomes "Just How Stupid is Our Methodology?" In defense of ANES, they are working hard to repair the miscoding of previous data sets (these guys do great work) and in the latest 2008 pre- and post-election release the knowledge items are not even available yet (which is kinda pissing me off given that I need them for some work I'm doing). So the Pelosi, Cheney, Brown, and Roberts identification codes all are listed as -3, as in "we dunno yet, but we're working on it." I figure we'll see 'em sometime later this summer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When a Good Idea Unravels

Another good theory -- shot down by the data.

I'm looking at how much people trust the government and are satisfied with democracy after an election. There's been a lot of work that shows, much of the time, losers are -- not surprisingly -- more unhappy with government and democracy after they become, well, losers. It occurred to me that when you expect to win, but lose, you'd be even less satisfied with democracy or the government.

Not so much.

Playing with data from the 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections, I really found no significant effect. I was sure people who predicted their candidate would win but ended up on the losing side would be really pissed, for all kinds of solid theoretical reasons. But noooo, the data says I need to find something else to think and write about, at least for publication in a respected academic, peer-reviewed journal. So instead I write about it here, and a not-so-respected, no-peer-review blog

The winner-loser thing doesn't always work, either. In fact, winners in 2000 (Republicans) actually score lower on trust than the winners. This gets all mired in partisan and ideological feelings about big bad federal government that goes beyond mere winning and losing. A lot of the research fails to take this into account, by the way. A serious failing.

Anyway, I'm gonna set this one aside as one of those great ideas that didn't quite pan out, one I may revisit at some point if inspiration strikes.

But while I'm in prediction mode for elections, I am going to do some work in a favorite topics of mine, wishful thinking, which is basically the notion that we tend to see our own candidates (or sports team, or whatever) as the likely winner. This effect is robust and even exposure to polls that tell us our guy/gal is certain to lose does not moderate this preference-expectation link.

Basically, who we prefer is who we think will win, and all other information be damned. Gonna play with that and examine the effects media consumption might play, because dammit it ought to moderate the effect. But ... and here's an angle worth exploring, selective exposure/attention to bias-confirming information (conservatives watching Fox News, for example) may actually enhance wishful thinking. Here we have two competing hypotheses -- that means if I present 'em both, maybe I'll nab support for at least one of 'em.

Time to get the old SPSS rolling ...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Selectively Covering the End of Journalism

The big TV news networks love talking about the economic struggles facing newspapers. You get to drag out all that old video of printing presses and cool old movies like The Front Page.

But when it comes to TV news facing similar problems, not so much coverage. But let me warn you, I have some methodological issues to deal with after the next graph.

A NYTimes article about a study by the fine folks at Annenberg finds lots and lots of newspaper coverage about the struggles of newspapers, and lots and lots of TV coverage about the struggles of newspapers, but when it comes to covering TV news and its problems the results kinda fall apart. Kinda. The sampled newspapers apparently (I haven't seen the actual report) had 900 stories about the struggles of papers and 95 stories about the struggles of TV news. TV news had 38 stories about the struggles of newspapers and a measly six about their own problems.

Now it's methodology time. If my math is right, that means 90 percent of newspaper articles on problems of the two media were about papers. That also means 86 percent of TV news stories about the two media are about newspapers. Without cranking up my SPSS and doing a little chi-square analysis, I'm fairly sure there's no statistically significant difference here. Also the press release has, it seems, slightly different numbers than in the NYTimes article (I can't locate the original PR release, but this blog has some text attributed to the PR people).

So, much ado about nothing?


First off, if the numbers are right, the proportions are about the same or at least close enough to warrant concern. Second, newspaper struggles are simply a better story, one full of history and democracy and a helluva hook with the shutdowns at major metro papers in Seattle, etc. And yeah, the TV hairdos don't want to spend time talking about the decline of viewers, and that says something about them and their willingness (or lack thereof) to examine their own shops.

In terms of what people know, this is obvious: people know newspapers are failing, given the extensive coverage by all media, but there's a good chance they don't know that TV news suffers from many of the same problems. It's time TV news took a hard, honest look at itself rather than running all that video of printing presses.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Local TV News and American Idol

Today's NYTimes has, in its print edition, an ironic juxtaposition -- on the far left and far right columns, stories about the struggles of local TV news and the success of American Idol.

The audience for American Idol continues to shrink, yet Fox manages to squeeze out more and more profit thanks to the aggressive sales of such ilk as trading cards, partnerships with iTunes, and even the disturbing thought of branded of ice cream. While you might be tempted to call this yet more evidence of culture death, you gotta give 'em credit for wringing a few more bucks out of the old franchise.

For local TV news, well, the news ain't so good. With a shrinking audience and shrinking revenue (all those car dealers with no money to spend on local ads), the TV guys look a lot like the newspaper guys -- except with better hair.

So why the irony? Journalism is kinda stuck since it can't easily market its product or use tie-ins (yeah, local TV does this some and it's ethically questionable) or sell trading cards or have Action News Ice Cream. Magazines tread awfully close to what we used to consider ethically questionable behavior (sweetheart deals with advertisers, etc.).

Journalism has a lot of choices to make. We can go the route local TV news and mags have used for years, doing questionable tie-ins with people, placing "stories" for clients, that sort of thing ... or not. Today's NYT front page picture of some military guys involved in a cyberwar game is an interesting example. Right there on the back of the monitor is the Dell label. Holy free advertising, batman! The rules of journalism are simple: never add stuff, never make up, never change what someone said, or what a photo shows. You can't photoshop out the Dell label, so should you instead ask Dell to pony up some bucks for the free advertising?

The journalism guy in me says nope. Never. Not in a million years. But that journalism guy, he's hungry and he's desperate.

American Idol would do it.

Should we?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Confidence in Major institutions

I'm always a sucker for surveys and one of my favorites is tracking people's confidence or trust in major institutions such as Congress, the military, the press, and all the rest. You can tell a lot about the whims of public opinion by examining them over time.

Using Harris poll data drawn from here, let's look at a few.

The Press. Of course I start here, being a journalism guy. Since 2002 the press has seen a high of 16 percent saying they have "a great deal of confidence" to a low of 2009, where it sits at 12 percent. Still, that's probably within the margin of error. There's also a category for Television News and the latest number was 22 percent. It's bounced around the 20 mark for several years.

Colleges and Universities. Gotta go here too given that a major university pays my salary. This has actually gone up from a low of 33 percent with "great confidence" to 40 percent this year. Woo woo! We rock.

Wall Street. Oh what a beating Wall Street has taken, so it's no surprise that the richies have dropped from 19 to 4 percent of people having great confidence. Four percent? That's the lowest of any of the 16 institutions examined. Even Congress, which has slipped to 9 percent from a high of 22 percent.

Organized Religion was at its lowest in 2002 but now is at 28 percent. Not bad.

Overall, most major institutions have seen a drop in confidence over time. This is nothing new. I remember in graduate school reading a textbook, The Confidence Gap, that discussed the trend from the 1970s as trust in major institutions slowly eroded (in part a Watergate effect, in part Vietnam, in part everything else).

Coincidentally (not really) I am working on a research paper that examines trust in government and how being a winner or loser in an election affects your trust. Lots of people have mined this territory, including a couple of professors of mine in grad school, but I'm taking a different twist that, as far as I can tell, no one has explored yet. More when I get the blasted thing actually finished, but basically I'm looking at winners and losers and whether or not you expected to win (but lost) and how that may lead to even less trust. And there's media stuff there too. Sigh ... if I finish grading, maybe I can get back to it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Where Ya Get Your H1N1Info

H1N1, or swine flu. Where are people getting their info on this much-discussed version of influenza? I give you two different lists, both courtesy of the great folks at the Pew Center in this new report.

Most Useful Sources (in order)
  1. Internet
  2. Cable news
  3. Local TV news

Source of Information

  1. Local TV news
  2. Cable news
  3. Network evening news

That second, disturbing list, deserves some explanation. Respondents were asked where they learned something about H1N1 and they could rattle off any number of sources, so 69 percent somehow managed to find local TV news as a source of swine flu info and 63 percent identified cable news. Both have covered this frothing at the mouth, but that's a different matter.

Indeed, the Pew folks found H1N1 to be the big story in terms of interest, even besting that perennial favorite the economy.

Of course H1N1 so far isn't as bad as TV went on and on and on about, and there are even reports of people thinking about swine flu parties to get infected. Why? Apparently there is anecdotal evidence that back in the big one, the 1918 epidemic, people who caught an easier Spring version were better able to handle the next Winter version that killed so many people. The thinking goes -- and I do NOT recommend this because it's dumb -- that catching it now will help you next Winter when we get a nasty, mutated, angry version of the swine flue sweeping across the globe.

The Internet is the growing source of info, and compared to TV I have to say -- thank god. Then again, it's hard to know where on the Net people are getting their info, so lemme take back that thanks until we know more.

Knowing More -- Added Stuff

A Pew Center person pointed me to a report that breaks down where on the Net people are going for H1N1 info. Thanks!

The good news? The CDC is #1. The bad news? Wikipedia is #2. Then there's Google and Yahoo, basically search engines, and then oddly enough ... MySpace? The land of awful music and even awfuler web pages, a source of swine flu info? CNN shows up on the list at #6 and sadly is the only news site mentioned. There's also another government web site, and ... Facebook?

The only thing missing from this frightening scenario is Twitter. Probably comes in at #11.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Participation and Political Knowledge

Political participation and political knowledge are closely linked. Taking part in the process makes you more attentive. It lowers the costs (cognitive, not financial) and increases the perceived benefits of participating. The more you know, the more you realize how you're affected by government decisions, so the more likely you are to participate. And the more you participate, the more you learn. A splendid little circle forms, what the social science guys call reciprocal effects.

Okay, but what about new forms of participation?

Younger voters especially see participation in a different way. While a political scientist will often examine how often one attends rallies, votes, gives money, that sort of thing, I know of damn few standard surveys that include as participation such activities as visiting a candidate's Facebook page or "friending" that candidate, of subscribing to tweets, of posting on your own page something good about a candidate, or a bit of embedded viral video, or anything else.

Is that participation? Oh yeah, but we don't really measure it all that well. Not yet at least.

Does that kind of participation result in the splendid little reciprocal circle I mentioned above?

No one knows.

I'm thinking yes. I'm thinking it's gotta make a difference. Any form of participation raises the stakes a little, makes you recognize how a campaign or issue affects you, makes you attend just a little more to the subject -- thus raising your political knowledge. Nudging the needle, I'd call it, perhaps in a statitically significant way.

At least that's my hypothesis. Someone out there needs to test it, so get to it budding PhDweeb types. There's a thesis or dissertation or journal article there just waiting to be exploited.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hypo Time

A couple of days ago I blogged about social networking and people's perception of public opinion, and whether the former influences the latter. Skimming that blog may help this post make more sense (but no promises, it's me after all).

I've always been interested in people's perception of opinion. We tend to project our own opinions on the public at large. In other words, we tend to think others think the same way we do, what the social scientists sometimes call projection but based also on the fact we tend to hang out with people much like ourselves, thus skewing our perception of opinion for a broader public.

I've been wondering whether social networking, at being tied in to the mundane and profound thoughts of so many friends and quasi-friends, can influence our perceptions of opinion. Thus, I'm gonna toss out a few possible hypotheses over the next day or two.
Hypothesis 1: The greater the use of social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), the greater the likelihood one will perceive other people agreeing with your own opinion.

Huh? Wouldn't more information make you more accurate, not less so? I don't think so. First off, we tend to link to people like ourselves, even if they're only barely friends, so that should increase the likelihood we'll think the world agrees with us because that's all the opinions we see expressed. Our narrow little worlds make us a bit more likely to overestimate how many people agree with us, and I think social networking only accelerates, not moderates, this effect. I'd love to see this tested.
Hypothesis 2: Social networking posts include only poll information that favors a poster's point of view, not poll results that run counter to a poster's ideological or partisan position.
This one kinda makes more sense, or at least is not counter-intuitive. There are exceptions, the people who put on a Facebook news feed some poll that they think shows how dumb people are, but overall I expect to see confirmatory information, which in turn would lead to Hypothesis 1 being supported.
Hypothesis 3: Attempts to shift public opinion via social networking will ultimately fail.
Yeah, a crappily-worded hypothesis, but I'm short of time and didn't want to get all PhDweeb on it, but the above hypo in its various forms has significant meaning for people in politics, public relations, and even journalism. Basically I'm arguing, and need to explore this further, that social networking, even at its most viral, does little to nudge public opinion. It might move perceptions of opinion.

To me, Facebook is the big guy in this test. Twitter, less so. Too ephemeral, too silly, too confined. But Facebook with its updates and news feeds, that's a place ripe for examination by people interested in what moves public opinion, or moves perceptions of that opinion (to me a more interesting theoretical question).

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Borg and Social Networking

I've mentioned it before but there's this great definition of public opinion:

Public opinion is no more than this,
what people think other people think
It's a line I use in my grad class on public opinion, on a research paper I published a coupla years ago, and probably too often in casual conversation. I've always been fascinated in people's perception of opinion and how they tend to project their own opinions on the public at large. In other words, if I think this way, most people think this way (false consensus).

Yeah yea, but so what? Well, I was in a doctoral meeting the other day and we were talking about social networking (Twitter, Facebook, et al.) and it struck me that we now have, thanks to technology, access to a "group mind" of sorts -- we know what other people think. This kinda changes the dynamics of spiral of silence, of pluralistic ignorance, of false consensus, and all those other great theories that rest on the notion of people and their perception of opinion.

Someone needs to study this stuff.

It's kinda borg like, if you remember Star Trek Next Generation. The borg operated on a linked group mind and warned our heroes: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." Tweets and Facebook posts and all the rest, are they a potential groupmind, a creator of consensus, or are they merely shouting into the dark to people who really aren't reading the posts in the first place?
My own hunch is we're going to see some influence on people's perception of public opinion if they happen to use these social networking tools -- but not in the way you might think. Selective exposure to similar others, hanging out with people like yourself, is one reason we tend to project our own opinion (or of a handful of others) on the public at large. If our various social networking links resemble our real world interpersonal relationships (people a lot like us) then this actually increases our likelihood to project our own opinions on the world at large. If our social digital networks are broader (I hope so, but not sure, again to be studied) then perhaps this will mediate this tendency in people.

Sunday morning thoughts after too much coffee, I admit, so enough of the theoretical, unless of course later today something about this comes to mind and I have to shout it out to the darkness.

Oh, on a historical note, that great quote is from a book entitled Prince Lucifer by Alfred Austin. Lucifer is one who says it, which is kinda neat. Came across it in graduate school and have used it, off and on, many times since.