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.

June 25, 2018

Harshing the Civic Mellow

Nail. Head. Hit.

When it comes to protests, mean words, civil disobedience, boycotts, public shunning, we may disagree when one or other is wise or called for. But these are entirely legitimate tools of political action, civic action. Many calls for civility are simply calls for unilateral disarmament from those protesting injustices and abuses of power.

That’s Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo.

Calls for civility almost always come from people with social, economic, and political power who don’t want their tender mellows harshed.

June 20, 2018

Why I Laugh at Millennials

I’m a Baby Boomer.

And I’m an admirer of the theory of generational personality developed by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

Add one more thing: I’m a fan of the Milennial generation of which my daughter is a member.

But I laugh at them. I laugh at them to shame them. I laugh at them as a rhetorical strategy. I want to convince them to vote in numbers that would eclipse my generation. I want them to save us from ourselves.

So I laugh at them and shame them. I shame them on Facebook. I shame them in the classroom. I shame them in face-to-face conversations. I shame them because I’m ashamed of my own generation and the mess we’ve made of things. I shame them because I cannot think of a more effective way to engage them on the topic of voting (and I’m ashamed of that).

I don’t tell them how to vote or what politicians to support because I trust and admire most of their values.

I shame myself because I’m begging them to vote.

June 19, 2018

Big Lies, Small Lies, and Child Abuse

The government is telling lies about its abuse of children on the southern border. Like any fallacy, logical or otherwise, this tactic can certainly be employed as a rhetorical strategy. Big news there, right?

There’s been plenty of fact-checking and outrage. But let me suggest another tactic for ending this abuse of children: Shine a light on those responsible.

Big news, again, right?

No. I mean expose the people who are actually doing the dirty work on the ground: Border Patrol agents. These men and women need to take moral responsibility or become monsters. Former Head Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowske lamented the effect this duty might have on the agents.

I suggest each agent is morally responsible for their own soul. If agents choose to put children in cages — and make jokes about their anguish (re: PBS link above) — then we have the right to hold these individuals responsible for the damage they cause.

Agents should refuse this duty. And they should gladly accept any consequence for refusing as morally superior to following heinous orders.

I’ve been tweeting about it:

January 9, 2018

No. Just no.

The ancient Greeks put a lot of stock in the ability to speak well in public. They understood effective speakers to have political and cultural power. They made moral judgments about their fellow Greeks based on the ability to speak well in public. In general, it was within the range of unbelievable for them that the unworthy could be good public speakers.

That seems naive to us today. But, simplistically, there are big cultural and technological differences between us and the ancient Greeks. The power of public speaking, and all the assumptions they made about its most effective practitioners, was reality for them.

Oprah Winfrey gave a (rhetorically) good speech at the Golden Globes awards ceremony.

Now some members of the Democratic Party and the political left (including pundits) —  tearing a page from the ancient Greek playbook —  are losing their minds because — OMG! — she could be President.

No. Just no.

I have already had my fill of amateurs who have launched their political careers in offices not meant as political training grounds. The current governor of Missouri — Eric Greitens — is a good example of not using an executive office to learn how to be a politician. Maybe he’ll get it someday. But it’s not looking good.

There’s another example I can think of. And maybe after I finish the sloppy Michael Wolff book I’ll have something to add.

Oprah Winfrey and I share much (not all) politically (if I understand her correctly). That doesn’t mean I want her anywhere near the Oval Office.

And, IMO, sober members of the political left in this country should be aghast that this terrible idea has been planted in the brain of another entertainer with a massive ego (just check out her magazine covers).

Look, a big problem (i.e. not the only one) with Trump isn’t his policies– to the extent that you agree or disagree with any given policy and to the extent that he can be said to have policies and understands them. An important problem is he’s an entertainer — an amateur politician — with a massive ego who is learning (or not, as the case may be) how to be a politician having achieved an office that should be the final chapter in a long story of public service in governance.

This was, BTW, a legitimate criticism of Obama — not enough experience going in. But he was a professional and avoided doing things such was Tweeting about his big button.

Please, Ms. Winfrey. Check that ego. You give a good speech. You are not ready to be President.

Please, Democratic Party, do not make me beg you to avoid making such a massively stupid choice.

November 30, 2017

The John Wayne Shot

My Carbon Trace documentary team is working on a film called Syrian Doctor (working title) about the mental health crisis in Syrian refugee children that has been called “human devastation syndrome.” (You can follow our progress on Facebook.)

Along the way we have done some humanitarian work (i.e. provided video) for the Syrian American Medical Society. For example, we created this mission recap video from the April medical mission to Jordan. Below is the climax of that video illustrating a bit of video rhetoric (ethos and pathos): something I call the John Wayne shot.

Imagine John Wayne. The actor? A specific character? My guess is the image that popped into your head was Marion Morrison in a cowboy costume walking confidently toward danger — to save the day.

The John Wayne Shot from acline on Vimeo.

That’s exactly the heroic image the John Wayne shot is supposed to invoke. Here’s what it looks like (at :18) at the climax of the video with doctors as the heroes.

November 29, 2017

I Bought A Digital Subscription

I just renewed my digital subscription to The New York Times this week.

Last night I added, for the first time, a digital subscription to the Washington Post.

I’m a sucker for that “democracy dies in darkness” tag line. Here’s what I actually think about such things. But this an emotional response, not an intellectual one.

And this is, IMO, dead on:

But such incredulity misses the deeper significance of this stuff. The brazenness of it is the whole point — his utter shamelessness itself is meant to achieve his goal. In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power — the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.

(Obvious quibble from my theoretical perspective: rendering reality irrelevant IS a persuasive intention. But never mind.)

In a nutshell, this is one reason the press finds it difficult to cover President Trump. And it hints at the way forward.

My long-standing cure (one of many) remains unchanged: the rhetoric beat.

March 17, 2017

Rhetorica Update

A few things going on this spring (cuz, yeah, it has arrived in Missouri):

  • My Carbon Trace Productions documentary team has two projects in the works: 1) Student Debt (working title), and 2) Syrian Refugee Doctor (working title). For the latter, my team and I leave for Jordan in three weeks to begin filming. BTW, only 4 days left for our crowd-funding campaign for the trip. Click here to see the particulars and make a tax-deductible donation.
  • I am compelled to push this idea: Every journalist needs to begin asking this question of public officials: Do you mean that literally? That whole “literally” thing may be the gift that keeps on giving for the news media in the weeks ahead. I’m going to pull that thread a bit and see what happens. It’s related to the stenography issue.
  • Should Rhetorica become the site for an extended examination of the rhetoric of documentary film (and, perhaps, multimedia journalism, especially in its long audio and video forms)? Oh, no! Not another re-invention! 🙂

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