Advocacy Advertising and Political Debate

Let’s talk about advocacy advertising today. You’ve all seen television commercials attempting to swing public opinion. They’re designed to sway Congressional votes on important issues, such as gun control, abortion, trade, energy, health care and more.

Both sides of important issues employ research in these epic struggles. Typically, researchers read a series of one-sentence “sales” propositions to respondents. Respondents rate each proposition on a scale. Researchers then rank the propositions based on their average ratings.

For those producing and targeting commercials, these rankings reveal which arguments work best among groups people are for issues, against them or undecided. So far, so good. When we get to the next step in the process, however, a dark consequence of advocacy advertising begins to emerge.

Solving Health Care Reform in 65 Words?

The average 30-second television commercial contains just 65 words. That’s about four to six sentences depending on their length. Now you understand why so much effort was thrown into research designed to identify compelling sound bites.

Addressing Multidimensional Issues with Single-Minded Discussions

The medium of television advertising forces multidimensional issues into single-minded “discussions.” Each side hurls its sound bites at each other without ever truly addressing each others’ arguments. It feels like the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray replays the same bad dreams over and over again in an endless series of looping nightmares. The usual results:

  • Political stalemate
  • Perpetual disagreement

Frustrating Progress

Most advocacy advertising lowers the level of public debate to that of two shrill cockatoos parroting the same soundbites at each other, over and over. We rarely seem to get past the opening volley in the debate.

Progress is the casualty. Frustration is the winner.

How social media impact stock traders

The Washington Post published a fascinating article last week about the fake Associated Press twitter post by hackers. It provides insights into the incident that triggered a stock market landslide of 1000 points. The article by Dina ElBoghdady and Craig Timberg appeared in the April 24, 2013, issue. According to the Post, a hacker group called the Syrian Electronic Army allegedly hijacked high-profile twitter accounts owned by Western organizations that cover the civil war in Syria. In addition to the AP account, the accounts of NPR and CBS “60 Minutes” have also been hacked.

In the Associated Press case, the hackers posted a false story about explosions at the White House that injured the President. “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured,” read the tweet. The “news” came shortly after the Boston Marathon Bombing. As a result, there was heightened sensitivity; the hoax seemed plausible.

“The episode, while lasting only several minutes, has drawn scrutiny from the FBI and a bevy of regulators while also highlighting the hair-trigger nature of today’s markets, where the demand for greater speed clashes with the occasional reality of misinformation,” say ElBoghdady and Timberg. They continue:

“Automated high-speed trading accounts for about half of daily stock market volume, and while few traders admit to having their algorithms make decisions based on a single tweet, several said the use of social media is growing. This kind of computerized trading tends to exacerbate market fluctuation, especially during sudden drops in prices, critics say.”

However, the article also points out that some dispute whether the stock market plunge involved computerized trading. “It’s not clear whether Tuesday’s market drop was caused by fast-fingered humans or computers seeing the words “explosions” and “White House” in a tweet,” say the authors.

They interviewed people who claim that computerized trading was not the cause of the market drop because of a 23 second delay between the tweet and the plunge. “That’s not compatible with computer trading,” said one. “If it was computer algorithms that were trading, the market would have moved in a fraction of a second.”

Regardless of whether humans or computers acted on the misinformation, the incident underscores how vulnerable we all are to unknown assailants who may be half a world away, sitting in a coffee house somewhere, armed with nothing more than a latte and a laptop.

Do Electronic Communications Contribute to Political Gridlock?

Gallup released today a poll showing that 65% of Americans say the U.S. Senate should have passed the measure on April 17 that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases. The poll also showed that only 29% agree with the Senate’s failure to pass the measure. How do background checks for gun purchases get killed in the Senate when two thirds of Americans want them?

A close friend observed that widespread, instant awareness which electronic communications foster may contribute to Congressional gridlock. Her theory goes something like this.

Politicians used to posture to their supporters in public, then go into “smoke-filled back rooms” – where compromises were reached in private – and do what they thought was right. Today, the harsh and constant glare of media attention makes that more difficult. A reporter, blogger, or special interest group is always waiting somewhere with a camera, ready to remind the world that “during your campaign, you said…”

I buy her theory and would add to it by saying:

  • Media proliferation and competition has intensified the spotlight that makes compromise difficult.
  • Special interest groups have changed the media landscape. They now have the power to reach wide audiences through self-published web sites whose authorship may be disguised.
    • They intensify that spotlight even more because they are unfettered by the need for balance, they often blur the distinction between reportage and advocacy.
    • As advocates, they can and often do paint issues as black and white rather than recognize shades of gray.
    • When advocates have a horse in the race, they tend to see compromise as a loss rather than a partial win.
  • Instant awareness can instantly mobilize opposition forces against any compromise on the table.

Of course, cultural and philosophical factors also exist that contribute to Congress’ inability to reach compromise on important issues. Nevertheless, I am stunned that our political leaders can’t even agree on something that two out of three voters want.

The background check issue is just symptomatic of a bigger issue facing Congress – gridlock. Another Gallup poll shows that only 15% of Americans approve of the job congress is doing. This approval rating is less than half the average for the last four decades – 33 percent.

Global Awareness and Extremism

Does the global awareness, made possible by electronic media, foster extremism?

After the Marathon bombing, I got into a discussion about extremists with some friends. It was prompted by the killings of so many innocent people in Boston. And Newtown. And Aurora. And Virginia Tech. And 9/11. And Oklahoma City. And. And.

Like many people, in the days after such incidents, I asked myself, “What could possibly lead someone to do that?” I began to wonder if this was another case of “All the world’s a stage.” Certainly, the killings took place on a world stage. The timing, location and media coverage ensured that.

I wonder to what degree the publicity provided an incentive to the terrorists. Were they out to make a name for themselves within the Jihadist community? That’s certainly a possible motive for the crime.

The alleged perpetrators also reportedly used the Internet to learn how to make bombs. So in this case, the Internet may have also provided the method.

Another story involving the Internet also made headlines this week. Yesterday, a hacker  broke into the Associated Press twitter account. The hacker posted a false story claiming the White House had been bombed and that the President was injured. The hoax triggered a wave of computer-related stock selling on Wall Street. The Dow dropped more than 170 points in minutes. The stock market loss exceeded $200 billion. Even though the market itself rebounded when the hoax was discovered, it is not clear how individual investors fared. Depending on the timing of individual sell and buy executions, investors could have made large profits or been wiped out.

Yet another story about the Internet and terrorism broke today. A teenager from the Chicago suburb of Aurora was arraigned on terrorism charges. The FBI accused the American-born man of seeking to join an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization through a website which the FBI itself set up as a sting operation. The site urged readers to “join your lion brothers… fighting under the true banner of Islam”. Ethical questions aside, the incident illustrates how the Web can be used effectively to recruit would-be terrorists to extremist causes.

My Take

I believe that electronic media – especially the Internet – can foster extremism for several reasons:

  • Electronic media provide instantaneous global publicity, a powerful lure for people who consider themselves to be outcasts, downtrodden or powerless.
  • The global publicity of acts of terrorism multiples the fear inspired by the original acts, another powerful lure for would-be terrorists.
  • The Internet provides a high degree of anonymity. This removes much of the fear of getting caught.
  • The ease of Internet publishing provides a vehicle for extremist groups to recruit.
  • Non-existent editorial standards on the Internet allow the publication of manuals on how to make bombs, poisons, etc. that any child can find.
  • The Internet provides a way for people with extreme interests to find each other and form groups. Feeling that “I’m not alone” can remove social constraints that might otherwise inhibit people from taking violent action.
  • The Internet itself is a vehicle for committing many crimes. Without twitter, the stock market calamity would not have happened.

Electronic media amplify the voices of extremists on the fringes of society and give them an unequal “share of voice.” “Ordinary people doing ordinary things” does not constitute “news”; planting bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon does. It guarantees worldwide publicity for weeks. That’s a ticket to immortality for the lost and lonely, the alienated antis, and those who feel bitter or betrayed.

Digital media and crime suspect identification

For law enforcement authorities, “digital footprinting” may be the next big thing in suspect identification.

cellphoneimageofcrowd

The past week provided several new examples of the unintended consequences of new media – all related to the Boston Marathon Bombing case. While many of the side effects I discuss in this blog are negative, In this case, they were mostly positive.

Public supplies thousands of images

Shortly after the bombings near the finish line in this year’s Boston Marathon, law enforcement authorities put out the word through television that they were interested in receiving cell phone pictures and videos from onlookers. Their theory: that the perpetrators would be visible somewhere in the photos.

The public responded. At one point, according to ABC news, the deluge of images pouring into the FBI temporarily crashed their site. So great was the outpouring of support from the public that ABC dubbed the phenomenon “clicktivism.”

Within days, the FBI identified two suspects with the help of facial recognition software to track the thousands of faces in the crowd.

Suspect identification

They correlated the citizen-supplied videos and images with security camera footage from surrounding stores and found two young brothers carrying backpacks large enough to conceal pressure cookers packed with explosives. The color of the backpacks also reportedly matched the color of charred fabric found at the scenes. Through analysis of the images, authorities were also able to identify the brothers at the locations where the bombs exploded.

The authorities then circulated images of “Suspect 1” and “Suspect 2” through mass media. Within minutes, the images went viral and the FBI was able to put names with faces from the leads.

The FBI continued to investigate the suspects’ digital footprints … with the help of social media.

A cell phone reportedly played another key role in tracking down the suspects. As authorities closed in on the suspects, they allegedly carjacked someone to get away. The person who was carjacked reportedly told authorities that the the brothers had confessed responsibility for the bombings to him. The person who was carjacked also left his cell phone in the car when he got away. Using the GPS tracking technology built into the cell phone, authorities closed in on the suspects, shot one and captured the other alive.

Digital footprinting

The remaining suspect is still far from a trial. However, it’s likely in this case that digital footprinting may prove to have the evidentiary value of fingerprinting.

At the top of this post, I said the side effects of digital media were “mostly” positive. Evidently, the Internet also played a negative role. According to news reports, the suspects may have used to Internet to learn how to make the bombs.

Ironically, this one case shows the best and the worst of digital media.

Crisis Coverage of Boston Marathon Carnage

This is a followup to my previous post about crisis coverage and changing news preferences which I wrote a week before this year’s Boston Marathon. A terrorist planted two bombs near the finish line of Boston Marathon this year. To date, the bombs killed three people. Seventeen more are in critical condition. Hundreds more were injured.

Initial Reaction: Turn on the TV!

As a teenager, one of my dreams was to run the Boston Marathon. So the bombings saddened me greatly. After learning of them, I rushed home and turned on the television. My DVR captures both the local and national news each night. Within the first half hour of the watching the national television crisis coverage, I saw the same sickening scenes of carnage replayed at least twenty times. The local crisis coverage was a replay of the national, but twice as long.  As I watched the recordings, I found myself fast-forwarding through the repetitive horror shows. They felt like a nightmare from which I could not escape.

Second Reaction: Revulsion

In the four days following the event, there have been countless reruns of the original blasts, endless shots of the carnage, hundreds of interviews with first responders and spectators, and absolutely nothing new in terms of actual news.

Inevitably, the coverage makes me recall those terrible first few days after 9/11. The countless reruns of the event, the endless shots of the carnage, hundreds of interviews with first responders … and absolutely nothing new in terms of actual news. It all seems so familiar.

Third Reaction: Switch to Digital Coverage

This time, however, I’ve rationed my news consumption. I find myself watching far less crisis coverage on television. I rely instead on the AP Mobile News app on my iPhone. It pings me when there’s a new development in the case; I read the lead of the story; and then I return to my regularly scheduled life. No disrespect is intended for the victims of the bombing, the people of Boston or runners everywhere. I’m sure they all wish they could do the same.

Looking back at my previous post about televised crisis coverage, it feels strangely prophetic at this moment. The smaller screen that I now rely on has changed my emotional reaction to events. I am certainly no less shocked by what happened last Monday. However, I do NOT feel as though I’m being swept into the vortex of the horror show. And I do NOT feel as though a terrorist’s actions have seized control of my life. The medium that I now rely on has definitely changed my emotional reaction to the event.

Will news consumption preferences change media crisis coverage?

In 2004, Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles, published a poignant essay entitled Media Crisis Coverage: To Serve and to Scare. It was published in the Journal of Media Psychology.

Professor Fishoff examines what he calls the “dysfunctional partnership between the media and the public in our increasingly media-centric lives.”  He describes the intimate, adrenaline-fueled dance between viewers and producers of television crisis coverage and observes:

“The thin line between gut-wrenching, vital information and a news-sponsored horror show begins its fade to oblivion.”

In 2001, days after 9/11, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project titled How Americans Used the Internet After the Terror Attack found that 81% of all Americans said they got most of their information from TV; only 3% of Internet users got most of their information about the attacks from the Internet.”

In his essay Media Crisis Coverage, Fischoff observed:

“During a crisis, many viewers, particularly those with 24-hour cable news shows, seek out the constant drumbeat of news coverage to stay informed and reduce the stress that accompanies uncertainty.  But watching hours of crisis coverage footage can often have the opposite effect.  Visual images go directly to the most primitive parts of our psyche, pushing all the fear buttons.  Anxiety is elevated.  People watch in order to calm themselves.  The more they watch, the more they want to watch because the more anxious they feel.  And the cycle continues.”

To reduce the psychological trauma and anxiety of being drawn into news/horror shows, Fischoff made a number of recommendations. One had to do with the size of the screen that viewers used to watch crisis coverage.

“Shrink the size of the image,” said Fischoff.  “Here is another example of when size matters: According to Detenber (1996), size is important to emotional response. It is important to babies in perceiving others, and to adults when watching a movie in a theater. Image size positively affects the arousal and dominance dimensions of emotional responses. Size is a primitive heuristic (in animals, for example, who is prey and who is predator, or who is too powerful to safely take on) that influences a range of judgments. Films seen as large images on a screen elicit stronger feelings of arousal than the same films when viewed on small screens disbursing small images.”

After reading this essay, I began to wonder about two things:

  • Will the trend toward getting news from the Internet, especially via smartphones and tablets, reduce the traumatic stress that people feel when viewing crisis coverage? Their screens are much smaller than televisions’ (70″ LED screens seem to be the current norm for new TVs).
  • In times of real crises, such as 9/11, will people revert back to getting news from TV because of the “quality” of coverage it presents?

Fast forward ten years. By 2011, Pew found that “The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing.” The report also found that in December 2010, 41% of Americans cited the internet as the place where they got “most of their news about national and international issues,” up 17% from a year earlier.

Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project

 My Take

Current Internet news coverage fundamentally differs from television news coverage. It tends to be more text than video focused, although this is beginning to change with increases in bandwidth. The comparative lack of video and sound remove much of the visceral “you-are-there” impact of crisis coverage. And if digital coverage becomes too repetitive, i.e., with endless reruns of the Twin Towers falling, viewers can easily switch “channels” or topics. The Internet offers millions of URL’s to choose from.

I suspect that the shift to digital news consumption will have a psychologically mitigating effect on consumers. I also suspect, for television producers, the real horror show will be their bottom line.

Adapting to the Side Effects of New Technologies

Rehak’s Law: Like medicine, every new technology has side effects that are unintended. Rehak’s Corollary: The more popular the technology, the greater the side effects. For instance:

  • Cell phones and texting distract drivers and contribute to traffic accidents.
  • The Internet makes porn readily available to kids.
  • Electronic commerce opens a door to identity theft.
  • Email invites spam
  • Video games make violence feel commonplace

Diffusion Theory Describes How Innovations Spread Through Society

“Diffusion” is term used by marketers to describe the process by which the market accepts new technologies, products and ideas. Everett Rogers popularized the theory in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. The book explains how, why, and at what rate new technologies, products and ideas spread through cultures. Rogers describes five categories of adopters.

  • Innovators – venturesome
  • Early adopters – leaders
  • Early majority – deliberate
  • Late majority – skeptical
  • Laggards – fearful

The ability of most marketers to find and appeal to innovators and early adopters determines their success. The distribution of these groups within any population looks something like this.

 Diffusion curve

How Society Adapts to Side Effects of New Technologies

Roger’s theory focuses on the adoption of new technologies, products and ideas. One could draw a similar curve, however, that describes adaptation to new technologies, products and ideas as people deal with their inevitable side effects. Here, too, I have observed five stages.

  • Recognition
  • Communication
  • Insulation
  • Regulation
  • Obsolescence

Superimposed over the adoption curve, the adaptation curve looks something like this.

Adaptation curve

Innovators and early adopters are among the first to recognize side effects.

They communicate with each other to raise awareness of side effects as they become apparent. At this early stage, self-defense is the only defense against dangers.

As more people adopt new technologies, aftermarkets develop for products and services that insulate people from negative side effects. For instance, computer networking spawned products that:

  • Inoculated computers against viruses
  • Blocked hackers with firewalls
  • Encrypted data to protect against identity theft

At this stage, the spread of side effects plateaus but continues. If the problems are severe enough and affect enough people, government steps in to pass regulations that impose fines or jail time on abusers.

However, abuse – or the side effect – never really stops until a technology becomes obsolete and people migrate to newer technologies (the dotted line in the graph above). At that point, criminals lose interest and follow the market. By the time you reach the end of one technology’s life cycle, something new is coming out. The cycle, like life, repeats itself.

Truth-Teller App from Washington Post Could Alter Nature of Political Dialog

Several weeks ago, I posted a tongue-in-cheek wish list for Web 2.0 improvements that helped tell truth from lies.

It turns out the Washington Post had already been working on a Truth-Teller Application under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The prototype of the app made its debut in late January.

According to the Washington Post, the goal of Truth Teller is to fact check speeches in as close to real time as possible. The inspiration for the idea came during the last Republican primary election. Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s national political editor, was attending a rally for Michelle Bachman in an Iowa parking lot. Claims Ginsberg:

”For about 45 minutes she said a lot of things that I knew to not be true, and nobody else there knew that.”

Ginsberg thought there must be a way to offer people in the crowd a real-time accounting of politicians’ misstatements. He consulted with Cory Haik and others [1] at the Post. The  Truth Teller App is their attempt to offer such a service.

They based the prototype on a combination of several technologies. It generates a transcript from video using speech-to-text technology, matches the text to a database, and then displays, in real time, what’s true and what’s false.

For the prototype, the Post focused on the looming debate over tax reform, but hopes to expand their database to incorporate more issues in the future.

“It’s a proof of concept, a prototype in the truest sense,” says Cory Haik, Executive Producer for Digital News at the Post.

To test Truth Teller from The Washington Post, visit truthteller.washingtonpost.com. You  can play videos from President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House John Boehner and other politicians and instantly see which statements are true, false or misleading.

Kaila Stein, writing in the American Journalism Review, “Haik realized that everyone at that rally probably had a phone in their hands, and that a program capable of detecting false claims on the spot could help people sort out fact from fiction. She envisioned a product like Shazam, a popular app that can recognize a song based on its sound; however, instead of identifying song and artist, Haik’s app would distinguish between political truth and lies.”

Fact checking is hardly a new concept for news organizations, but doing it in real time is new. It could fundamentally change the nature of political dialog. As I pointed out in another post on February 18, misinformation can be difficult to correct once the rumor mill of the Internet begins and search engines dutifully record millions of comments on it. Hearing or seeing something repeated so often and in such volume can make people think something is true when it, in fact, is not.

“Cognitively, it is much easier for people to accept a given piece of information than to evaluate its truthfulness. This stacks the deck in favor of accepting misinformation rather than properly rejecting it. … Researchers have found that misinformation is “sticky” and is often resistant to correction. Retractions are often ineffective and can sometimes backfire, strengthening incorrect beliefs.”

From Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing
By Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook

The Post hopes to release a functional version of the app by the end of this year and  continue refining it after that. According to Stein, Haik and Ginsberg see their innovation as a game-changer. “My hope,” Ginsberg says, “is that, in its realized form, it fundamentally alters the political discourse in America.”

______________________________

[1] The Washington Post Truth Teller team:
Cory Haik, Executive Producer for Digital News
Steven Ginsberg, National Political Editor
Joey Marburger, Mobile Design Director
Yuri Victor, UX Director
Siva Ghatti, Director, Application Development
Ravi Bhaskar, Principal Software Engineer
Gaurang Sathaye, Principal software engineer
Julia Beizer, Mobile Projects Editor
Sara Carothers, Producer

Impact of Media on Child Health

I have long felt that in the Information Age, media are like the air we breath and the water we drink – necessary for life, but sometimes toxic and often unhealthy. Browsing this morning, I found this group: The Center for Media and Child Health (CMCH).

videogameAt Children’s Hospital Boston, the Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard School of Public Health, this group is dedicated to understanding and responding to the effects of media on the physical, mental, and social health of children through research, translation, and education.

They have found that young people spend more time using media—TV, movies, music, computers, Internet, cell phones, magazines, and video games—than engaging in any other single activity except sleep. Their site is a treasure trove of scientific research related to these topics.

According to the Center for Media and Child Health:

The media that children use and create are integral to their growing sense of themselves, of the world, and of how they should interact with it. These pervasive, persuasive influences have been linked to both negative health outcomes, such as smoking, obesity, sexual risk behaviors, eating disorders and poor body image, anxiety, and violence, and to positive outcomes, such as civil participation, positive social behavior, tolerance, school readiness, knowledge acquisition, and positive self-image. For any given child, which effects occur depends largely on the media’s content, the child’s age, the context in which the child uses media, the amount of media the child uses, and whether that use is active and critical.”

 

To create positive rather than negative outcomes, they propose five Five Cs, which I summarize below:

  • Control time
    Limit media use to an amount appropriate for your child’s age.
  • Filter Content
    All media educate. Some teach healthy lessons, others harmful.
  • Influence Context.
    Where, when, how, why, and with whom kids use media can enrich or harm them.
  • Teach Critical thinking
    It’s essential for healthy development.
  • Create media mastery
    Show kids how to think about media they use, instead of passively consuming it.

My Take

To kids, media represent a way to explore the world, stay connected, share experiences, identify with groups, and show off. They’re a badge of belonging. They’re a gateway to information, entertainment and temptation.

Research shows that kids consume up to seven hours per day of media (ten and a half hours if you factor in multitasking). Nothing will influence the type of adults that kids become more than you and the media they consume. The wise parent will teach kids to use media time wisely. I read that in a fortune cookie, so I know it must be true.