Saturday, October 30, 2010

Who Tweets?

Here's an interesting study (abstract only, sorry) that examines who tweets among elected officials.  It concludes:
We find that Twitter adoption and use are relatively difficult to predict. Members are more likely to use Twitter if they belong to the minority party, if their party leaders urge them to, if they are young, or if they serve in the Senate. Surprisingly, we find that electoral vulnerability has little or no effect on Twitter adoption or use. 
 I find the minority party aspect the most interesting.  By being in the minority, your voice can disappear from the mainstream news media, so Twitter makes damn good sense as a way to get the message out.  That alone deserves further scrutiny to discover whether minority party tweets are significantly different than majority party tweets.  I hate content analysis (my major professor liked to call it an intellectual cul-de-sac), but this one that could be not only theoretically interesting but also get some popular press play.

How might they differ?

I suspect minority party tweets will be more likely to criticize the other party.  That seems a given.  I'm open to other suggestions.  And some grad student who wants a thesis topic.

When Parody Becomes News
And Vice Versa

We used to worry about the separation of church and state (news and advertising).  We used to worry about the blurring of opinion and news.

Doesn't that seem so quaint?

Now we have the blurring of comedy, parody, and news, and lots of people hanging around Washington DC when they should be watching the Georgia-Florida game.  The Stewart/Colbert thing will no doubt be funny, will get covered by cable news, and will get far more attention that it probably deserves.  But what the hell.  These guys are damn funny, almost as funny as some of the candidates running for office (such as my congressional district).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Racism and the Perception Obama is a Muslim

I've published earlier research on perceptions that President Barack Obama is Muslim.  In that study, I was specifically interested in whether exposure to news moderated this misperception (it didn't).  The least educated, least politically interested, and those with strong conservative Christian beliefs were most likely to perceive Obama as Muslim.

Okay, fine.  But what about racism?

A couple of people have suggested that since discussing his race was politically incorrect, a taboo of sorts, the myth of him being Muslim became a surrogate for those with racist beliefs.  But no one's tested this yet with actual data.  Until now.

In a first blush, I looked at two different kinds of racism.  The first is explicit racism, a traditional measure based on questions such as do you feel admiration toward blacks?  I created a scale based on these.  The second is implicit racism, and it's a bit more complicated.  Respondents were asked to focus on a screen and then, for 250 milliseconds (below conscious level) they saw a random black face, and then it was instantly replaced by a Chinese letter (ideograph).  At that point they were prompted to quickly click on the letter as being pleasant or unpleasant.  They did this for 24 faces.  This is an approach used for years in other areas and even in attitudes toward Obama -- but not about perceptions of his religious affiliation.  My N (number of respondents) is about 980 ... real people, not college students.

Okay, so we have two measures of racism.  I put them into a model to statistically control for education, age, race, party identification, and so on, to see if racism still predicted the likelihood to see Obama as Muslim.

I fully anticipated that implicit racism would remain statistically significant, being a sneakier measure of racism.  I was wrong.  Only explicit racism continued to predict the perception that Obama is Muslim.  There are two possibilities.  First, I may have screwed up creating my explicit racism measure.  I've triple checked, but it's a complicated bit of recoding given the number of images, their randomized order, and so on.  The other is that the measure simply doesn't work.  That seems unlikely.  It's an approach, called AMP, that's been around for a while and worked well in this study of Obama.  Or maybe I need to think deeper about differs between these two measures.

Regardless, it's fascinating that explicit racism remains a factor even after controlling for a large number other, more likely, explanations.  That may be enough to build a journal article around, though I'm not so sure.  Any thoughts are appreciated.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Knowing False Things

Thanks to colleague Karen Russell for pointing this list of eight false things the public "knows" prior to the election.  It is, of course, a list designed to reinforce the job the Obama Administration has done over the past two years, just before the GOP eats the Dem's lunch.

If you did deep enough in the comments you'll find challenges to some, but not all, of Dave Johnson's points. But even if half of his list are "false" things people believe about the economy and such are correct, that says a lot about what people perceive as true versus what is actually true.

Ironically, in about two hours I'm giving a lecture to 25 or so Honors students about more or less the same topic -- how being uninformed is conceptually, theoretically, and pragmatically different than being misinformed.  I'll be using the myth that Obama is Muslim as my anchor.  Unfortunately I have a really sore throat, so I'm gonna swallow several Tylenol beforehand.  And if that doesn't work, I'll use interpretative dance instead.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Perceived and Actual Knowledge

There's what people know, and what people think they know.  In this piece, Nicole Skibola in a Forbes blog notes:
In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki discusses how disconnects between status and knowledge often lead to inefficient outcomes in decision-making processes. Groups, and obviously business organizations, tend to give deference to individuals with perceived or actual status, often with little to no correlation with actual knowledge.  As the group coalesces around one perceived knowledge holder, minorities are less likely to share their own perspectives, despite the fact that minority opinions make groups wiser as a whole.

Think of it as a micro version of the spiral of silence in which minority viewpoints tend to spiral into, yes, silence, because the majority speaks up so much, and so loudly, and our fear of isolation is such that we don't dare speak out.

I should point out that, despite what the book suggests, actual and perceived knowledge are typically correlated with one another.  Not perfectly, mind you, but there is a tendency for those who know something to also believe they know something.  I note the imperfection of the relationship because I've been reading a study on misinformation and how confident people are in their completely irrational beliefs, such as whether Barack Obama is Muslim.  The more misinformed, some studies suggest, the more confident people are in that misinformed belief.  In other words, it's damn hard to shake someone loose from crazy beliefs, even with facts.

Being uninformed, and being misinformed, are two conceptually distinct matters.  More on this another time.

Paul is Dead

Yes, it's all over the news, but I can't help but also note the passing of the incredible Paul, the octopus that called seven World Cup games correctly, the ones involving Germany, and then correctly predicted Spain's victory over Netherlands.

Paul's remains will be cremated.

Biologists are uncertain as to whether cephalopods are particularly adept as futbol prognosticators or whether Paul tapped into some inner knowledge (this is a blog about knowledge, ya know, so I had to work that in).  As we know from our social science reading, people tend to engage in wishful thinking when it comes to predicting the winner of a sporting event -- that is, predicting their favored team will.  Paul, of Germany, picked against Germany ... and correctly so it turned out.  Take this as evidence that sea life is unaffected by wishful thinking.  I see a psychology article on the way.

And now we must search for another animal before the next World Cup.  Will we go with another octopus?  Maybe move up the evolutionary chain to a mammal (certain college students excepted)?  Or downshift to the insect world?

Good news is, we have until 2014.  Or maybe that's bad news, because I'm ready for some more World Cup action.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Harry Truman Lives

Give Em Hell Harry still lives, at least in the mind of one college kid who, when asked to name the Senate Majority Leader and prompted with "Harry," came up with Truman.

Could be worse.  He coulda said Harry Potter.  Watch the video and enjoy.  Or sob.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Given the Right Platform
People will Pay for News

According to a new study (or here), people with an iPad are willing to pay for apps, and they will use the device to access magazines and news.  Forty-four percent used the iPad to read the news and 25 percent used it to read a magazine.

If we do enough fuzzy math, we can suppose a sizable chunk of them will combine the two and pay for news.

Sixty-three percent of users say they've paid for and downloaded an app.  A third have never done so.  The leading apps are no surprise: games, books, music.  But the findings for "news & headlines" is heartening.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Climate Change
Half of Americans get an F

I missed this survey released by some Yale folks last week that examines what people know (or think they know) about climate change.

Half of Americans get an F.  Only 8 percent nail it with an A or B grade. Sounds like my writing class.
Check out the site and the accompanying pdf with more details.  Given I have to be in class soon, let me just shamelessly lift a section and hope you'll take the time to read the rest.  Or, if time allows, I'll post more.
Overall, we found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. In this assessment, only 8 percent of Americans have knowledge equivalent to an A or B, 40 percent would receive a C or D, and 52 percent would get an F. The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society. For example, only: 
  • 57% know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat;
  • 50% of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities;
  • 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface;
  • 25% have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification.

How to Become an Informed Voter

I apologize in advance for this video's bad advertising, bad music, and I really apologize for the fact it has John Stossel as host.  But it's about voting, it's about being an informed voter, thus I feel slightly obligated to provide it for your viewing (dis)pleasure.

See below.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Learning History -- the Glenn Beck Way

If you spend any time watching Glenn Beck's show on Fox, you know this -- he's not a historian, but he plays one on TV.  Kinda.

Americans tend to disappoint when it comes to most kinds of knowledge (history, geography, math, politics, etc.) but we're pretty damn good when it comes to identifying the judges on American Idol, so it's good to know our priorities are right.

Beck is a fascinating guy.  He's even had a New York Times magazine cover article about him, so you know he ranks.  He's not all that educated, but he's got the TV show and the glasses down on his nose and the whole professorial thing going for him -- if he doesn't break into tears.  So the question for me is, when it comes to what people know, are folks actually learning history from Glenn Beck?  Some have criticized Beck's take on history or some of the historians he's promoted on his Fox program.  That's an important topic, whether he relies too heavily on what some call a "master revisionist." 

But a lot of what Beck talks about, outside the wacky conspiracy theories, is straightforward history that many of us haven't talked about or thought about since high school civics class.  Founding Fathers stuff.  Set aside he's occasionally off the reservation in how he (or guests) interpret those bygone days and let's wonder -- since we don't have data -- whether any actual learning about history may be taking place among viewers of his Fox News program.

I'm guessing ... yes.  Good learning, such as names and dates and stuff like that, and bad learning as well as people buy into the crazier of the interpretations offered on the show. 

So what we have here is a Win-Lose situation.  Winning, in that people are exposed to history, and lose, in that people are exposed to some of the weirder versions of history.  All in all, I think the end result is a good one.  But as I said, we have no actual data on this.  No one, as far as I know, has surveyed only Beck viewers to see how much they know about history before and after the programs.  And of course it gets all mixed up in the Tea Party's creative interpretation of history and the founding of the nation and what's constitutional.  Given Beck is a patron saint of the movement, it'd be hard to disentangle what people knew before or after viewing his program.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hard News Still Matters?

A report out this week argues that hard news is a bigger draw for online newspapers than celebrity fluff.  That's good news, if true.
Newspaper websites get more ad revenue from articles about serious stuff like the Gulf oil spill than from traffic bait like stories on celebrity scandals, according to an analysis by Perfect Market, a company that aims to help publishers become more visible and profitable on the web. 
In the good news/bad news take:
  • The "hard news audience," while small, heads to newspaper websites.
  • Newspapers don't have to pander because (1) it's embarrassing and (2) it apparently doesn't work.  Those infatuated with celebs are probably getting it at TMZ.
  • Hard news kinda still matters.  CNN, for example, is always behind Fox, except when the miners in Chile were being pulled out.  On important hard news stories, people still go more to credible sources.
  • But ... is the core hard news audience large enough, and willing to spend enough, for real news?
One telling graph from the story:
Lindsay Lohan's trouble with the law, Mel Gibson's rants and celebrity divorces didn't compare with any of those, according to Perfect Market, which said it considered more than 15 million news articles from 21 news sites that use its technology, including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. Its analysis factored both the amount of traffic that articles got and the ad revenue for those articles for every thousand page views.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Not all "Journalisms" Are in Crisis

The title above I shamelessly borrow from a research paper (abstract here, full pdf here) that argues while traditional news approaches are in crisis, "there are many other emergent forms of journalism that simultaneously succeeded during this period, and which continue to flourish."

Here's a key point:
Whereas journalism used to be largely homogenous, thinking about journalism in the plural presents a much greater challenge to those who wish to maintain control over what the public sees and understands about politics.
This is a qualitative analysis of news. It argues that thinking of "journalisms" will help us better understand the role news plays and how people make use of news.  Or, as the author says, "I propose we now think about journalism not in the singular, but a range of journalisms which operate in different ways, fulfil different requirements, and appeal to different niche audience groups."

It's a point well made.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Science Literacy

Everyone (I think) agrees that's important for people to have some degree of science literacy, and there's been plenty of survey results that suggest Americans don't know as much about science -- or, let's face it, any other topic, like history or health -- than they should.  Here's a really good essay by Matt Nisbet that explores this question, in particular whether science knowledge plays a role in how resistant people are to new or emerging scientific techniques or findings.  What's interesting is something I'd never considered before -- how scientists and social scientists differ on whether science knowledge really plays a role in this resistance.

In fact, it’s possible that the current debate relative to science can draw upon valuable research focused on why people participate in politics generally, and why people trust (or distrust) various government institutions. This research shows that knowledge, trust, efficacy, and deliberation are all closely related. Enhanced knowledge of politics leads to an increased belief among individuals that they can make a difference in politics, and also leads to increased trust in political institutions. Deliberating or discussing politics with others enhances knowledge, but also gets people involved. 
An excellent, thoughtful piece.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Personality and Political Behavior

If you remember your psychology, you know all about the Big Five personality traits.  These are those five broad organizing traits under which all other psychological predispositions and actions are thought to emerge from.  What are the Big Five?
  • Openness to Experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Emotional Stability
We don't see a lot of studies that touch on media or political communication that make use of these big traits.  Instead, we often focus on smaller, more distinct, traits (need for cognition, as an example).  And yet, some folks take on the challenge, like this study.

The only reason I mention it is that, on Table 3, political knowledge gets tossed into the mix.  This is basically an examination of civic engagement (participation) as a function of the big personality traits.  Table 3, for example, looks at openness to experience and various political activities.  Political knowledge and internal efficacy (the belief of one's own competence in understanding politics) do a better job, it seems to me, than openness to experience when it comes to predicting participation.  The study is much broader than this, far more complex, but I'm keeping just to the bit that touches on knowledge.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I blogged the other day about this interesting study on whether a politician correcting himself or herself can influence attitudes.  See my original post for study details, but here's a bit of the results I just reread and found fascinating.

The dependent variable is belief in whether weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were in Iraq when the U.S. invaded.  The authors, using multiple regression, found no main effect for a correction embedded in a news report about WMDs.  But when they looked at (geek stats warning!) interaction terms they found some interesting stuff. 

Stay with me. It's worth it. 

The authors found a three-way interaction for correction, ideology, and how important the Iraq war was perceived.   In other words:
... the correction was effective in reducing misperceptions among conservatives who did not select Iraq as the most important issue, but its effects were null for the most strongly committed conservatives...
In other words, a correction in a news story about WMDs seemed to work for conservatives who didn't care much about Iraq -- their misperception went down -- but for those who really cared about the war, the correction led them to a greater misperception about the existence of such weapons.  I'm pushing it a bit because although the authors above called it null effect, but they also note just afterward that the result is awfully close to statistical significance.  So let's run with that.

There's a lot more to get into, but I've mined the study about as much as I plan to.  Got other stuff to write about.  For details about the study, see my previous post.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Correcting an Outrageous Comment

As someone fascinated by misperception -- when people think something is true when obviously it isn't -- I find this study to be a useful addition to the literature.  In the March issue of Political Behavior, the authors conducted experiments to test whether a politician's correction of having said something untrue had any real effect.

The answer?  This is important, so pay attention: 
Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a ‘‘backfire effect’’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.


The authors created mock news stories about various topics and found conservatives (the focus of this study) use motivated reasoning to create even stronger misperceptions after a correction.  It's likely liberals will do the same, authors suggest, a tendency to interpret factual information to fit political predispositions.  The motivated of reasoning, in this case, is fitting the data to fit our pre-existing theories of how the world works.

Take this into the real world, outside the lab.  We often have politicians forced to "correct" themselves after saying something outrageous.  Turns out, even this correction may push people who want to believe something further into that belief.  Obama a Muslim?  Obama not American?  Suggest and correct, that's the way to fix an idea -- even an incorrect one -- in people's minds.  It's fascinating, and depressing, stuff.

I'd never thought of "corrections" in quite this way before.  There's a lot of room for further study, budding political communication scholars researchers.