December 8, 2018

On Ethics and Paradox

Early each semester in my MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence class I ask this question: What are you doing here spending money when you could be in Miami making money?

Most of them give me a WTF look. A couple, to their minor embarrassment, snicker because they know what I’m referring to.

Then I launch into a short explanation that goes something like this:

Why are you here spending money — even going into great debt — when you could be in Miami right now making money? There’s enough media talent in this room to start a successful pornography business. And Miami is the center of the action. Think about it. You’d be using your talents right now to make money and living in an interesting city with nice winter weather.

You can imagine the squirming as I say this 🙂

And then I pull the trigger: I want an answer. Why are you here spending money and not in Miami making money?

They know. I’m not sure if this is the first time most of these students have thought about media ethics or themselves as ethical actors in the mass media. But what I’m doing is forcing them to think about what it is they imagine for themselves outside the naked pursuit of wealth.

They never disappoint me. They always say, in some form or another, that they imagine greater things for themselves, their crafts, and their audiences. They are better people than this, which is one of the reasons they are here spending money to get an education rather than exploiting themselves and others for money.

Imaging greater things for themselves in mass media careers requires them, however, to think about, and operate within, some uncomfortable realities.

Our social media environment is one of those realities.

I’ve been assigning the “go viral” assignment, described yesterday, for about six years now. Students have found many ways to make me uncomfortable with this assignment. So I’ve had to add a few things to the discussion over the years.

For example: Do not portray any illegal act. Do not make pornography.

Thankfully, no students have ever produced porn for this assignment. But I did have a group early on produce a video that portrayed them engaging in a minor illegal act. When I asked if the video was real (because, you know, critical thinking), well, they got a big kick out of that. I took that to mean the video was fake, but they never said for sure. In case you’re wondering, it did not (thankfully) go viral.

So in the discussions leading up to the assignment I have added a few don’ts.

But otherwise, I leave them much room to work. The variety of videos they have made over the years continues to astonish me. Some are fake. [Definitional timeout: “fake” is a problematic word today but also attention-getting. I’m being denotational. I’m also making up a lot of words here 🙂 ] Some have been deadly serious and most certainly real; this sometimes happens if I have a working group with a critical mass of journalism majors. And I get the stupid stuff. Just this semester I got another in the genre of “silly stunt.” Others are just weird … because, you know, weird can go viral.

The assignment also calls for them to write a justification for their video that explains what it is they did to make it go viral. This assignment is all about “on purpose.” And you can’t do something on purpose if you don’t know why you’re doing it. This assignment, again, is about both critique and control, both thinking and doing.

Without the doing part it isn’t education so much as another thing the professor is yammering about at the front of the room.

It has been suggested to me (by a person I respect) that my decision to handle this assignment this way for the purposes I have stated is Machiavellian, i.e. I’m willing to have students create things that are — in many cases — designed to fool the public for an educational purpose, and, possibly, putting them at social and economic risk. Does the end justify the means in this case.

I think it does.

I am aware that I am asking students to do something that could lead to a bad choice — even a choice that could have life-altering effects. I believe I prepare them for these choices before they do the assignment. I believe that one cannot be an effective media professional without having to face tough choices — a situation we put student journalists in everyday across the country when we ask them to publish student newspapers with no direct oversight of their editorial product. That shit gets real a lot.

If the potential for getting real is absent, I question the value of the lesson.

Our social media environment exists in the form that it does. It has to be dealt with — understood — in the form that it exists. And the audience is particular, too, to the form of social media. You gotta feed beast what it wants. This has always been true. And what the video beast wants more than anything — especially on social media — is emotion. That doesn’t mean you can’t do good, important, audience-informing work in video for social media (so, yeah, I have some areas of major disagreement with Neil Postman). Take a look at this video by my non-profit production company. It’s all pathos. And I stand behind it as an important, true, and audience-informing addition to the civic discussion. It is not fake news.

But neither was the recent viral video in question. It was not fake news. It was just fake. A trifle. A bit of entertainment. A bit of entertainment that worked on the pathos of pretending to be true. A bit of entertainment designed to manipulate the audience. A bit of entertainment that crossed a boundary that we think exists between the real and unreal, between news and entertainment.

That boundary? Man, that horse has been out of the barn for so long it has died in the field.

I am continually shocked when I see working journalists appear on TV dramas as themselves. I shouldn’t be. Nobody gives a shit. Their employers don’t give a shit. It’s a part of our media environment now. That boundary is fiction. That doesn’t mean the fictional boundary isn’t important. But I’ll need to deal with that in another post cuz this is getting into the tl;dr range.

I am not happy about this. But I cannot ignore it as I try to teach media students — including journalism majors — to be better media producers whether their goal is to inform, entertain, or something in between. In a very real sense, I’m also trying to teach citizens to be better consumers of media messages.

My screed yesterday was a first attempt at articulating all this. But it also points out a paradox I embrace.

On the one hand I want students to know what it means to produce viral content — from the silly to the serious. On the other, I want the audience to ignore them when they choose to be fake.

December 7, 2018

Social Media and Critical Thinking

Is going viral good or bad?


And I assign students to do it.

I have a culminating assignment in my MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence class. It’s called the viral assignment. The first sentence of the assignment reads: “Go viral.” There’s a whole course load of material that gets us to this point, and I’m going to leave it in the classroom for now. But, generally, after many weeks of discussing “viralness,” I have my students, working in groups, give it a go. And the incentive: 1 million views before the end of the semester earns all students in the group an automatic A for the semester. (BTW, every group that finishes a video and writes a cogent justification gets an A for the assignment because, well, going viral “never” happens on purpose in this class. More in a second.)

The biggest point here is the idea of going viral on purpose. There is great social, political, and economic power in that. I believe going viral is as yet not well understood. But media professionals need to try to understand it, critique it, and do it … if possible. Going viral is a particular thing — generally understood as getting a million or more hits over a short period of time. But it also represents, in our social media age, an achievement in attracting the attention and imagination of a large audience.

In the roughly six years I’ve been assigning this task, one group went viral and two groups had their videos picked up by an aggregator and earned a little money. The first viral group did it by force of will; one of the students already had a large audience for his (if I’m remembering correctly) beat box channel. Over 10 days he worked, begged, and finessed his group’s way to a million hits. Nothing came from it.

As I type these words, my e-mail inbox continues to ingest messages at an alarming rate, and I can’t hit the Twitter refresh button fast enough to keep up with all the new retweets, DMs, and mentions.

A group in one of my MED130 sections went viral. More than 2 million hits in less that 24 hours. And I just learned from a local TV news crew that it’s topped 5 million. I was an actor in this video distributed on Twitter (several times over the years I’ve played the ranting or befuddled professor for viral projects that went nowhere).

I was intrigued about how “well” the video was doing until I realized someone had recognized me. Someone else posted my e-mail address. Others began digging around for personal information. What made this particularly uncomfortable was all the heartfelt emotions of people who were reaching out with messages of support (I’m making a massive assumption here…more in a second). This had to stop, so I issued this statement on Twitter:

I am gratified by all the well-wishes. But… This video was made as part of an assignment in MED130. It is fake (many clues). The point of the assignment is to “go viral” in order to study viralness — especially as it plays on the emotions in the emotional medium of video.

I am always intentional about my rhetoric if not always careful about my usage. I gave the “(many clues)” parenthetical thought a good mulling over before I typed it. Because, you see, I am right now dissing all those people — real or fake — who poured well-wishes into Twitter meant for me — or meant to boost their own feeds 🙂

And, sure enough, here came the question: What clues?

I did not mean to suggest that the students who made this video planted clues. They did not. Instead, seeing the clues required Twitter users to think critically about what they were seeing. For the most part, it appears they did not.

Here they (some of them, anyway) are:

  1. Do you know the student who posted the video; does she know you? If yes, you still have a little work to do. If no, then you have absolutely no business whatsoever retweeting this as true because you have absolutely no idea whatsoever if it is true or not.
  2. Is the student who posted this a public figure or known reliable source of information (e.g. blue check)? If yes, you still have a little work to do. If no, then you have absolutely no business whatsoever retweeting this as true because you have absolutely no idea whatsoever if it is true or not.
  3. For MSU peeps: It ain’t finals week.
  4. What the hell is going on here? Is throwing a Christmas party something a professor should be doing? Should this professor give gifts to students who may then be asked to evaluate his performance? (This, IMO, is what all of the people who reacted to this video should have been asking.)
  5. What is the timeframe? Is the student reliable? Did she get it wrong? What happened 10 minutes later?
  6. Why is the professor such a dick? There are students in the room. Students who bothered to show up. Why is he sitting there like an ass when he should be engaging them (engaging them would be typical professor behavior, again IMO).

You get the idea.

Or do you? This thing went viral 1) because the students did a good job of emotionally manipulating the audience, and 2) because the audience did a bad job of critically thinking about the message. And this, my friends, is where we live today.

Video is an emotional medium. If you’re not making a play to pathos you’re not doing it right. The choices media professionals make in this can be good or evil and things in between. And our academic program spends a lot of time discussing ethics with our students. We require a 500-level class in media ethics for all of our majors. I taught that class for 12 years.

Two books you should read: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter  by Roderick Hart.

Both are by academics yet quite readable. Both warn of the dangers of receiving information over screens. Because you see, people react emotionally to what they see on screens. And sometimes they overreact or react inappropriately.

I trust that at least some of the reactions to this viral video were exactly as described by the people who commented. And to those people who felt true distress for the plight of the lonely professor, I am sorry.

But whether your reaction was real or fake (hello? retweets, DMs, and mentions can be just as fake as the fake thing being reacted to!), I suggest that without a little skepticism and critical thinking, then retweeting, DMing, and mentioning as if this were true, because you were emotionally triggered, was entirely inappropriate.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the ethics of my decision to play the role of the lonely professor and the ethics of assigning students to a task that might lead to misinforming the public.

October 15, 2018

The Rhetoric of Fake News

Without a proper academic study, it’s difficult to say just how much the passing along of fake news (mostly by linking and tweeting) is the result of not knowing something is fake but passing it along because it fits a world view or knowing it’s fake but passing it along because it fits the needs of a persuasive intention. There are other ways to bifurcate this and many possible explanations I’m choosing to ignore right now.

I think Regina Rini’s column in The New York Times is interesting and instructive in coming to some understanding of this situation. Specifically, she foregrounds the role of situated ethos in the viral growth of fake news: We tend to believe friends and family whom we trust. As she says:

Part of the reason that people believe you when you share information is this: they’ve determined your credibility and can hold you accountable if you are lying or if you’re wrong. The reliability of secondhand knowledge comes from these norms.

So she’s proposing a different way for Facebook, in particular, to use the power of credibility to fight fake news. Here’s the upshot:

Instead of using this data to calculate a secret score, Facebook should display a simple reliability marker on every post and comment. Imagine a little colored dot next to the user’s name, similar to the blue verification badges Facebook and Twitter give to trusted accounts: a green dot could indicate that the user hasn’t chosen to share much disputed news, a yellow dot could indicate that they do it sometimes, and a red dot could indicate that they do it often. These reliability markers would allow anyone to see at a glance how reliable their friends are.

There is no censorship in this proposal. Facebook needn’t bend its algorithms to suppress posts from users with poor reliability markers: Every user could still post whatever they want, regardless of whether the facts of the stories they share are in dispute. People could choose to use social media the same way they do today, but now they’d have a choice whenever they encounter new information.

I like this idea. Here’s why I think it won’t work:

Of the two propositions I mention to start this post, I have reason to believe (my hypothesis) that the linking and tweeting of fake news for a rhetorical purpose is more likely than passing it along out of ignorance about its fakeness. I doubt there are many people who are a mere head-slap away from realizing — Gadzooks! — “I’ve been passing along Birther nonsense because I trusted Uncle Joe. If only there had been a red dot!” My contention: Uncle Joe’s nonsense got passed along because his niece or nephew had a persuasive intention to do so whether the stuff was true or not. A reminder: As long as you don’t get caught and shamed, lies and fallacies and fake news are just as much tools of rhetoric as, say, Aristotle’s artistic proofs.

An uncomfortable number of people today do not trust the news media despite its attempts at transparency and its well-established Code of Ethics. Who, exactly, is going to trust a red dot placed by Facebook based on … what? Where’s the trust coming from? What’s the ethos?

I really do like Rimi’s idea … ten years ago.

It’s too late.

November 25, 2016

It Was Supposed to Make Us Smarter

There comes a moment every semester in my class MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence (because we couldn’t think of anything else to call it) when I tell students about two things I know to be true:

  1. Once you introduce a technology you can’t take it back.
  2. People will use technology for their own purposes and not necessarily the purposes imagined by its creators.

Think internet and porn.

Then again, think social media and fake news.

Apparently, the digital natives are having a difficult time with media literacy and critical thinking in the evaluation of information discovered online — especially as presented through social media.

What is fake news? Independent of rhetorical intention (e.g. satire, political manipulation, trolling, etc.), it seems to me that these are the essentials of fake news:

  1. Fake news imitates the time frame and time-bound nature of news. So the news-of-the-future skit on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In show does not count as fake news. Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live does.
  2. Fake news imitates standard news conventions (if imperfectly) regarding presentation and style.
  3. Fake news is counter-factual. This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but that state of being requires a culture to operate with a shared body of facts (not a shared interpretation of facts). I think we left that state of being behind a long time ago.
  4. Snippets of crap taken from fake news posted on social media is not fake news. That’s your Facebook buddy being a dumbass. That your buddy posted a meme or truncated snippet of bullshit is your opportunity to point out what a dumbass he is; it is not your opportunity to believe anything. In other words, fake news is the original expression following the first three points above. Conversely, your buddy posting a snippet based on real news is not real news until you’ve done the work of checking it out. (So, yes, in our current media environment the discipline of verification is also essential to citizenship.)

Fake news, then, isn’t a problem by itself. It can be wildly popular entertainment or cogently biting satire (here’s a good Black Friday example). Fake news is fun. It’s educational. I show the following video to all of my journalism students as an example of the problems caused by standard news form when you follow it uncritically:

The problem isn’t fake news. The problem isn’t even that people share fake news to social media.

The problem is a lack of media literacy and critical thinking.

Hmmmm… What to do…

August 15, 2016

An Amusing Aside

I’m finishing an essay — due today — for the American Political Science Association conference in Philadelphia. The title is “Race, Poverty, and Police: A Conversation.” Here’s what it’s about:

How might we understand #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter in terms of #allmenarecreatedequal?

It’s about memes and hashtags and the conversation we’re not having because we cannot have it.

February 21, 2015

Narrative Bias and Superstition

This article in The Atlantic calls it magical thinking or superstition. I call it narrative bias.

If Bohr couldn’t resist magical thinking, can anyone? One recent study found that even physicists, chemists, and geologists at MIT and other elite schools were instinctively inclined to attach a purpose to natural events. When the researchers subjected the scientists to time pressure (reasoning that this could expose a person’s uncensored biases), they were twice as likely to approve of statements such as “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” than they were when they had time to respond more deliberately [1].

I’ve discussed narrative bias as one of the structural biases of journalism. That isn’t exactly accurate. It’s really a human bias that journalists cannot escape, and, therefore, it plays a structuring role in their practice.

Here’s the bias stated, perhaps, more correctly: People apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

September 3, 2014

Rhetoric, Truthiness, and Critical Thinking

Minus the partisan spin, this article in Slate explains the rhetoric of truthiness in a useful way.

It also creates an excellent argument for critical thinking as a civic virtue. Truthiness — a product of terministic screens — is something opposite of the product of critical thinking. Truthiness is only possible in the absence of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is difficult.

Thus, this Slate article:

Newman, who works out of the University of California–Irvine, recently uncovered an unsettling precondition for truthiness: The less effort it takes to process a factual claim, the more accurate it seems. When we fluidly and frictionlessly absorb a piece of information, one that perhaps snaps neatly onto our existing belief structures, we are filled with a sense of comfort, familiarity, and trust. The information strikes us as credible, and we are more likely to affirm it—whether or not we should.

I’m not sure education can address this, seeing as how its project has taken many hits of late from assertions of truthiness from across the political spectrum. Did I mention critical thinking also makes the people politically troublesome and more difficult to “lead”?

August 7, 2014

Mass New Media Word Salad

Yes, I did just start a website for my MED581 Issues in media Ethics class called Mass New Media Citizen Ethics. My challenge was coming up with a name that captures the complex nature of media ethics now that citizens — especially millennials — are also, and expect to be, media producers, i.e. more than just a part of the conversation.

I think it works 😉

School starts on 18 August. So keep an eye out for their contributions. And use the contact form to make suggestions. The comment system will be open.

I have listed the site on the sidebar under Media Ethics. I will not be listing it as a part of the Rhetorica Network just yet. Still mulling that over.

January 22, 2014

Taking a Break, Back in the Spring

Rhetorica and Carbon Trace will be on an extended blogging hiatus until sometime in the spring.

This is mostly a career-related break. I have several projects and matters to attend to that are going to require my full attention.

Now, when I say full attention, that doesn’t mean I’m going dark. I’ll still be commenting on the various topics of interest related to my two blogs through Facebook and Twitter.

I know you’re all out there just clinging to the edges of your seats 🙂

Back soonish…

November 13, 2012

The Whole Content Thing

I’ve written many times on Rhetorica about the differences between stenography and reporting. The essential difference is that stenography (the thing reporters do too often) is the mere passing along of statements made by others, and reporting is the digging into the issues of civic importance to discover the information people need to be free and self-governing.

In a recent blog post about the questionable future of journalism, Robert G. Picard describes the usual stenography:

Most journalists spend the majority of their time reporting what a mayor said in a prepared statement, writing stories about how parents can save money for university tuition, covering the release of the latest versions of popular electronic devices, or finding out if a sports figure’s injury will affect performance in the next match.

Most cover news in a fairly formulaic way, reformatting information released by others: the agenda for the next town council meeting, the half dozen most interesting items from the daily police reports, what performances will take place this weekend, and the quarterly financial results of a local employer. These standard stories are merely aggregations of information supplied by others.

Almost any of my students — people between 18 and 24 years old — can spot the problem immediately. And I’m not talking stenography (although that’s a problem). The problem here is that the kind of information gathered by stenography is, today, easily gathered and disseminated by almost anyone with a bit of gumption and an internet connection.

What Picard suggests — and it’s important — is really just a new way of understanding the traditional job of journalism we call reporting:

To survive, news organizations need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere; they need to use journalists’ time to seek out the kinds of information less available and to spend time writing stories that put events into context, explain how and why they happened, and prepare the public for future developments.  These value-added journalism approaches are critical to the economic future of news organizations and journalists themselves.

Unfortunately, many journalists do not evidence the skills, critical analytical capacity, or inclination to carry out value-added journalism. News organizations have to start asking themselves whether it is because are hiring the wrong journalists or whether their company practices are inhibiting journalists’ abilities to do so.

Value-added journalism. That should be redundant, but it isn’t because he’s right.

Our culture can no longer afford the luxury of news organizations paying journalists to pass along their stenography. Our culture needs good journalism; it needs good reporting. So by all means let’s be redundant: We need value-added journalism.

(Note: Critical journalism? Where have you heard that before?)

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