Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Media Moncultures

Pew research has released a substantial study on how the left-vs-right consumes media. The findings were fairly stark--but not all that surprising. Conservatives cluster around Fox News--liberals choose between NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. The more conservative you are, the more you trust Rush Limbaugh. Nobody trusts Buzzfeed.

Conservatives have a tighter social-media bubble (the tendency of you to surround yourself with like-minded people sending like-minded messages)--but the more consistently liberal were more likely to de-friend someone over political posting.

You can look at the numbers and the graphs at the link above.

The Problem Isn't Ignorance--It's What So Many People Know That Ain't So

If you have been paying attention, you know that Fox News viewers consistently score as less well informed on tests made by people who probably don't like Fox's perspective. Certainly the Fox line-up is far more heavily weighted with editorial than actual reporting--but that's also truer to lesser-degrees with the other big-name outlets (save, perhaps, for NPR).

Still, even if you think Fox New's actual news is okay, the take-away isn't that "climate science isn't settled" but rather that as the wagons circle tighter and tighter the end game isn't pretty.

In agriculture the term 'monoculture' refers to the practice of growing the same crop over a huge area for many years. It yields big harvests--but with increased susceptibility to pathogens and parasites. This is the danger (or, if you are less conservative, "What has already happened") to conservatives--and could happen (but is showing fewer signs of it) to liberals.

In this analogy, bad ideas (that Ebola is a clear and present danger to American society, for example) get "loose" in the information system (Fox New's opinion shows) and can "spread unchecked" throughout the viewers (which include a large percentage of Republicans). This should be of concern to anyone--even if you think Fox mostly gets it right.

Exactly how this works isn't a mystery: you start hearing the same things over and over and no one is saying anything different ... you hear it from your like-minded friends--it seems legit.

The problem isn't with how it works--it's why--and while we're at it, why are liberals more diverse?

Why This Works
If the Media Bubble were dedicated to protecting specific beliefs (such as that Global Warming is a lie) that would be one thing--but it's not. The Media Bubble isn't protecting the idea that Benghazi was a cover-up--or that Obama's birth certificate might--hey--be fake (who knows? I'm Just Asking Questions!). No: the Media Bubble protects you.

Reading things (absorbing messages) that are contrary to significant parts of your self-image is painful. The Media Bubble helps ensure that this "damage" won't get in. It also acts as a counter-agent by giving you a story--an "antidote"--to ideas that you wouldn't like. These are the talking points that you use to dismiss uncomfortable information*.

Remember: if an idea you can't dismiss does penetrate then you start to wonder. If you are wondering about something that you hold as integral to your self-image, it is the unpleasant sensation of self-doubt. You don't want that. Nobody does.

So this brings us back to the question: if one team is building a stronger protective cocoon, then the other, why so?

Fundamentally the reason is that one team is being bombarded with more unpleasant messages than the other. Liberals can afford more news media because less of it is unpleasant (you can make the case that most media is liberal--but the primary news sources listed still differ in their degree of librality--not to mention things like The Economist). If you look at the two brackets (below) for which sides have more friends with differing views the difference is far more stark than if you just take the top slots:
For the conservative side it's 108 (66+42) that have a most-friends bubble. For the liberal side it's 78--a 30point difference. The more you need protecting, the more you're going to surround yourself with protective ideas. Let's keep this in perspective: geography and employment will do far more to segregate who you deal with than how much your self-image needs protecting--but the fact remains that this kind of protective person-based segregation mirrors the protective media-watching behavior.

The takeaway from this is that conservatives, in today's world, get more challenging messages than liberals--by a substantial margin. Some of this is changing cultural values (such as the dramatic rise in acceptance of same-sex-marriage). Some of it is strategically driven by monetization (doomsday conspiracy theory makes money so you'll see more of it). Some of it is, that, yes, a lot of media is pretty liberal (but be careful if that's where you go first: Fox News isn't liberal--but there are substantial questions about its accuracy--especially if you include the majority of programming that surrounds the actual news segments).

These are all reasons that conservatives might find some messages unpleasant. None of these are exactly "their fault." But ... some of it is. Conservatives have, recently, believed something that was very much not true--and believed it pervasively. We can question what's really going on with climate change because (although the climatologists are overwhelmingly decisive) but we can't question the accuracy of 2012 polling aggregates--except we did--until Nov 6th ... around 10 PM.

Today, with polls pointing against Democrats, we do not see the same in-the-cross-tabs "poll unskewing" in the massive numbers that we did in 2012 with Republicans. We also see the major analysts hewing to the actual political science rather than making Karl Rove or Michael Barone-style (i.e. 'wild-ass') predictions designed to convince people that "everything is okay."

This is probably not because liberals are better people or necessarily even "more reality based" (although some readers will think that)--but may simply be because the preponderance of signals 'allows' for some bad news (if gay marriage is winning in the courts maybe you can handle some unpleasant polls?). On the other hand, it may well explain why liberals are more likely to drop a conservative friend: if your media bubble is so thick that reality--some realities, anyway--can't penetrate, a logical conclusion is that the dropper just decided you weren't worth talking to.

A Media Monoculture as a defensive strategy runs exactly this risk: it will keep you comfortable as long as it can--but when it starts screening out reality how will you know?

Who will be able to tell you?
The Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses have been designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. They work by turning completely dark at the first sign of danger, thus preventing you from seeing anything that might alarm you.

* We'll pause here to not that "uncomfortable information" could be that mankind is NOT behind Global Warming if you're a liberal ... or (apparently) a climate scientist (well, most climate scientists, anyway).

The Hitching Post Scenario

The Hitching Post wedding chapel is a for-profit matrimony service in Idaho run by ordained ministers Donald and Evelyn Knapp. As per Idaho's newly ensconced laws against discrimination towards gays, they are preemptively filing suit to get an exception against having to perform same-sex marriages. Exceptions, it appears, do already exists for religious corporations--but the Hitching Post isn't owned by a church. It's not clear they'll get one.

Interestingly, until a few months ago, the Hitching Post offered ceremonies for other religions ... and civil ceremonies. They have been actively changing their web page in order to shore up their defense that performing a gay marriage would violate their beliefs.

In other words, they might've performed a Muslim wedding--which would be fine (It's 'Allah' good?)--or a sign-on-the-line marriage (so long as it's a man and a woman)--but not if it's a Christian ceremony for Adam and Steve (can there be such a thing? Well ... some people say so. The Omnivore isn't credentialed enough to have a professional opinion).

As a champion for religious rights, the Hitching Post isn't a great choice. But the larger question is this: when faced with a conflict between civil rights and personal freedoms (or deeply held religious beliefs), what do you do? What is the preferred solution for "your side"?

Option 1: Choose Your Icon Carefully
We'll never know what exactly happened to Zimmerman the night he killed Trayvon Martin: there's evidence he was getting beat up--maybe even in fear for his life--but we've really got no idea ... just (more or less) his word against a dead body. The Martin Brown case is still playing out--but, again, there's going to be a cross-fire of testimony that holds Brown was attacking Wilson in the moments prior to the shooting.

There's always going to be a specter of doubt and the prior actions (played up by the press? Leaked by the police) of the shooting victims are going to damage the greater cases they make to the world at large. Rosa Parks wasn't the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on the bus--she was just the most sympathetic.

It's possible that Erick Erickson's outrage ("You will be made to care") will boomerang--even by his standards--if it turns out that the couple has, say, officiated a civil ceremony for two satanists. If you are the kind of person who thinks that the individual characteristics of the standard bearer are important to the larger picture of the standard then the Hitching Post with it's tacky name and hastily altered web-site isn't a great one.

On the other hand, if you are the kind of person who thinks the bigger picture is what's important then it's sticker: should a Jewish baker be forced to bake a cake for a Nazi wedding? The idea turns The Omnivore's stomach--but the larger picture of religious beliefs has some pretty dark waters down near the bottom.

Option 2: No Religious Businesses
The obvious option for the Hitching Post is to hire a guy to handle weddings the pastors won't do themselves. That--or team up with a church and get their exemption. Both of these are probably not optimal--but (barring specific legalities or religious restrictions The Omnivore isn't familiar with) they seem achievable.

It's possible that the end-game here is simply this: if you are in the wedding business you are a take-all-comers type of person. If you are in the religious arm, you're a non-profit. Now, the wedding business is big business--and it's, currently at least, all tied up with religion--so untangling it isn't simple, isn't easy, and won't be fun or fair--but The Omnivore is pretty clear that we can still have religious weddings and we can still have profitable ones--and they don't have to overlap.

Option 3: Martyrs
It's less clear what you do when you are a one-man wedding photographer and you accidentally take on a job for a marriage that turns out to be same-sex and you feel creative participation makes you a party to the wedding in a way you can't handle. Sure: maybe what you do is try to nicely throw the business to a secular partner ("Hey, guys, I know we set this up--but I think Josh, here is really gonna be better for you.")--but what if they don't accept that? Whether to make a point--or because they really wanted you, what if they insist and the law says you gotta?

As it turns out religion has an answer to that (at least a lot of them do): you take the hit. This isn't cool--but it is the, erm, canonical response. You take the fine. You lose the store. You get, you know, eaten by the lions?

Part of doing this is because doing so actually moves the dial. If people perceived at large to be good people (perhaps with "old fashioned beliefs"?) are being put out on the street by gays targeting their shops and then brining law-suits against them--actually looks bad.

Now, this sucks for the martyr--but it is how religions have made their cases in the past. Maybe this is the answer today?

The Real Answer: No One's Going To Care
The Omnivore suspects, though, that despite Erickson's I-Told-You-So no one in the big picture is going to care, and here's why: to the younger generation gay rights look like racial issues. Whether they are or not is unimportant, yo: the ship sailed.

This means that although religious conservatives are going to see the end-times writ-large in gay sky-writing, society as a whole--and the wedding industry as a whole--is going to move ahead because gay-weddings are worth millions of dollars to local economies (although, despite what some might imagine, not more than the same increase in straight weddings would bring).

The wedding-industrial complex, chasing an uptick in wedding dollars is likely to steam-roll religious objections of the Hitching Post sort (that is, where the objection is brought up by a not-church affiliated for-profit business). While there will, in fact, be people who are fined or put out of business due to their religious beliefs, as the younger population gets older and the money rolls in? Those particular moral questions are likely to become less and less relevant.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Future of #GamerGate

From FlavorWire
Over lunch today The Omnivore was talking to a friend about the upcoming election and the friend said "I used to be a libertarian before ..." And The Omnivore was like, "Right ... the stigma." Indeed, The Omnivore shares many of the basic libertarian ideas--and suspects many more share at least some of them--so why are the Libertarians a fringe movement?

Well, the answer is ...

In case the above meme isn't clear (for Mom and Dad), the point is that the basically laudable top-level ideas about freedom and lack of coercion that Libertarianism has championed have been co-opted by both branding (the tin-foil hat and magic bus) and implementation (freedom of association is fine in theory: once you realize that it will, in fact, be used to kick black people off lunch counters, you have to come to terms with some pretty ugly compromises whichever way you decide).

By this point anyone who is a card-carrying out-and-proud libertarian either has adopted a fringe identity or has to put up with being considered at least a little bit crazy.

The Omnivore wonders: How damaged will #GamerGate have to get before people start opting out? Can that actually happen?

Maybe it has already started? On the GamerGate community message board, we have this post:

So Jason Screier came forward with a NEOgaf post about a Gamergater who got fed up with the movement. I'm posting it here. 

Quote:It actually took far, far longer than I'm comfortable with for this to sink into my thick skull. When you finally detach yourself from GG, and move away from the constant reinforcement the group provides that "no, we're doing the right thing! These are the bad guys, remember how bad they made you feel? We're doing the RIGHT THING!" you look and see holy shit.

This really IS a hate movement fueled by nutters. How did I get dragged into this?!

I'd implore GG supporters to distance themselves from the tag, and from the community, and take a very good look at everything that's going on, and all of the people who are being hurt. Are videogame websites, that we don't even visit, worth peoples LIVES being ruined? It's so easy to feel like it's all just a game, because we aren't the ones on the other end of the hatred. It's easy to point at someone and call "false flag!" because we aren't the ones who are sitting there, having people actually show up on our doorstep, saying "come out and plaaayy". The ends do NOT justify the means.

We don't NEED #GG to do good. There are a lot of people who want to achieve the same goals as us, but we are RADIOACTIVE until we move away from #GG because of what it represents. We can't start enacting change when the people who actually could start making these changes happen want nothing to do with us.

I doubt this guy even knows what Gamergate is, to be honest. Just typical NEOgaf bullshit. Also, is it just me, or are there is a big push from the opposition for us to move away from #Gamergate and try to rebrand? I swear, I've been hearing that a lot lately.

In this post, the OP (Original Poster) is a formerly pro-#GamerGate person (NOT Jason Screier) who finally looked hard at his movement and went "holy shit." He's disavowed it.

#GamerGate and Brand Damage
 The #GamerGate (link is to The Omnivore's article which includes some slightly dated explainers) brand is not entirely set-in-stone right now, The Omnivore thinks--but it's not headed in the right direction. Why? Well, because both major news outlets and less major--but well-read internet media outlets--have moved to a consensus: #GamerGate is a bunch of misogynist assholes. They have done this even within the "both sides" manner of reportage that these sites generally attempt to adopt. Examples:

Washington Post (2 Days Ago)
Their explainer article contains this:
And it goes on to focus on the abuse.

CNN (3 Hours Ago)
In their #GamerGate update, they talk about, well, the Anita Sarkeesian incident where she canceled a speech in Utah because of a specific threat to her life and Utah's legal prohibition against restricting firearms in a public place (so she had a mass-shooting threat and the police told her they could not stop people from bringing guns to her speech). The shooting threat is being investigated by the FBI.

DeadSpin (2 Days Ago)
A less massive but still well known Internet news site (which is under the same ownership as Kotaku, a major gaming site) gives a no-holds-barred opinion.
Anita Sarkeesian releases a video about the sexualization and use of women as props in games;she becomes involved as a matter of course; Sarkeesian is harassed and threatened to the point of filing a police report with the San Francisco Police Department and leaving her home due to the severity of the threats; Quinn produces logs of chatrooms and posts from Reddit and 4chanthat show gamers planning to carry out hacks on her personal accounts and create fake accounts to "speak out" against harassment; the gaming industry circulates a petition speaking out against the harassment of Quinn and Sarkeesian that's eventually signed by thousands of industry members; The Fine Young Capitalists, a fifth-column feminist group dedicated to "promoting women in gaming" with whom Quinn had previously feuded, re-engage her; groups from around the internet raise more than $70,000 for TFYC in a crowdfunding project; Adam Baldwin (yes, that Adam Baldwin) coins the term #Gamergate on Twitter; an ancillary hashtag,#notyourshield, is hatched by minorities, women, and LGBTQ gamers who agree with Gamergate and disagree with writers who they feel are misrepresenting them; Gamergate tweaks its outward image, deciding that it is now on a mission to expose broader corruption in video game journalism; and writers who have openly supported Quinn and Sarkeesian are harassed online, via email, and through repeated hack attempts, with Vox Media singled out in particular.
Basically, at this point, the #GamerGate story is about the harassment. This take on things in't likely to go away and isn't likely to soften: as time marches forwards, the public face of #GamerGate is going to be that of vicious misogynistic trolls. The "smoking guns" are going to be various actual verifiable threats, chat-logs, and police reports.

In other words: it's going to be credible.

Kotaku's Scrier tracks the #StopGamerGate hastag of voices who (mostly) disapprove of the movement.

That's JUST What They Want, Isn't It?
To a Gamer-Gater, though, this all looks like proof of a coordinated media-driven conspiracy ... and isn't that just what they were concerned about in the first place?

Maybe. But probably not. Firstly while maybe Deadspin might be easily co-opted, CNN and the Washington Post are not so amenable to game-industry pressure. The idea that these threats are 'false flags' created by anti-#GamerGate people who want to make the movement look bad--or by random trolls who have just "signed on" for "the lulz" (just to spread chaos and hate) is also the type of thing The Omnivore has heard before.

Occam's Razor suggests it was terrorists who flew jets into the World Trade Towers and not the CIA or Mossad. There's at least some tangible proof that legitimate pro-#GamerGate voices have also been involved in actual harassment.

When The Escapist, an online mag that seems at least neutral to the #GamerGate cause, decided to interview male game designers about their take on #GamerGate they got a variety of responses. They had to remove two of them because they got what they felt was credible proof these guys were harassers themsleves.

Here's one of the pulled interviews (Slade Villena Pg 1, Pg 2). If you click the links, there's nothing in there to suggest that he's a plant or dishonest. His interview tracks what many earnest #GamerGaters are saying. Some of the reasoning for his removal seems to be here (the developer is trying to get some hacking going, maybe). It's not clear what all the evidence was--but whatever it was, it convinced The Escapist.

In any event--the point is that (a) A moderately objective source seems to confirm that (b) reasonably meaningful names are (c) at least somewhat involved in the objectionable behavior.

Trolls might be amplifying the signal--but there's zero reason to think they're dominating it. In fact, the likelihood is that it's going the other way: Trolls are more likley attracted to #GamerGate because of the cover and accolades they get there.

There is no need for a large murky conspiracy of false-flag attackers and no reason to think there is one.

The Omnivore thinks that #GamerGate is becoming tightly associated with harassment through what would be best described as natural causes. Every #GamerGate supporter who says / posts that's not fair and says so is, in fact, probably doing additional damage their cause: Brand Damage isn't fixed by indignant rebuttals and the adage about "a few bad apples" doesn't  point to the conclusion that just-because-it's-a-few, the bunch will be okay.

If the #GamerGate forces want to change the narrative they need to actually change the narrative. Right now, the meaningful news about #GamerGate isn't about the (small-ball) horror of bad game-review-ethics ... it's about actual online threats and cyber-bullying.

Eventually that's going to do enough damage to distance well-meaning and rational supporters from the movement and it's a vicious cycle that will, likely, lead to a self-implosion.

Friday, October 10, 2014

When Winning Doesn't Win ...

Over at the National Review Online, Jim Geraghty has an observation: Conservatives feel that even though they are expected to take the Senate, gain in the House, and maintain their governors, they are "disgruntled, disappointed, bored, or frustrated with politics." He writes:
Republicans look around, see a country and world in chaos, and don’t understand why they’re not seeing a broad, angry reaction to President Obama and his allies in Congress. As far as we’re concerned, we’ve been vindicated by events. Leaving no troops in Iraq — “combat forces” or not — left a vacuum for ISIS. The prospects for Afghanistan aren’t much more promising. Far from being “on the run,” the Islamist threat is spreading and intensifying.
Indeed,  he lists the litany of issues including the IRS scandal, Benghazi, Ebola, and so on--and so on. Where's the outrage?
No one can blame conservatives for being frustrated to the point of fury. But if American rank-and-file conservatives and Republicans conclude that the game is rigged, that it’s not worth playing, and withdraw from political life . . . then that will be the ultimate triumph of this president.
Well, Where IS The Outrage?
Jim doesn't really ascribe a culprit in this case (usually? It's the media)--but it's fair to say that he probably blames a broad swath of brought off minorities, biased news agencies, and an imperial president who will use his phone and pen to do whatever he wants regardless of the facts or the will of the populace (unless it's attacking Syria, anyway).

But in case he's willing to look beyond the obvious*, The Omnivore has got something to show him. It's a picture ... of his own article.

Let's pretend Jim is reading this--and looks at the page and goes ... "Huh?? Why's he showing me a pop-up ad?"

The Omnivore turns to Jim and says: "Are you going to tell me you haven't seen this before, Jim?"

Jim (suddenly guardedly): "Can't say as I have--I block pop-ups ... and anyway, they're just ads--they're everywhere."

The Omnivore clicks over to

Jim eyes the page: "Well, that's Brietbart. Look they have an ad--so what?"

The Omnivore hits TheWeeklyStandard.

Jim is thrilled: "Look, no FEMA pop-up. See?"

The Omnivore: "Yeah--but look!"

Jim: "I don't see anything."

The Omnivore draws an arrow.

Jim: "So, it's another ad? So what? You hate capitalism or something?"

The Omnivore clicks the ad. "Let's see what it says?"

It says it's going to blow the lid on a scandal that will destroy 251 million lives in Obama's next Benghazi (in six months!) (read the whole freakin' spiel here--seriously). Here's a picture:
You'll Die Unless You Pay Them!
Jim is now, maybe a little cranky?

Jim: "I'm sure this is going somewhere?"

The Omnivore: "Uh, no--it's not going somewhere. It already left."

What's The Omnivore Talking About?
Jim is a smart guy--and The Omnivore's point here is brutally obvious: Conservative news sites--save for the one that explicitly doesn't run ads--are full of this apocalyptic buy-gold/buy-food rip-off crap. These are the big-bucks ads, too: these giant pop-ups are premium advertising. Let's also note that while Brietbart might be a little more populist, the NRO and Weekly Standard are top-tier conservative sites. They're smartly written and educated. Intellectual--and their readers are going to be in the smarter, more literate demographics.

So why are they being targeted by these The-World-Is-Going-To-End ads?

Well, Jim, because they sell--even to top-end educated conservatives.

Now, maybe the world is about to end. Maybe the guys with over-priced Food4Patriots stock-piles are going to be laughing at us in the next six months when the dollar collapses and WWIII breaks out. But I'm betting Jim doesn't believe that.

The Omnivore bets Jim thinks that the Islamic threat is growing--that porous borders are a bad idea, hurting the economy, and certainly a huge potential security threat. The Omnivore wagers that Jim knows he doesn't have Ebola--but thinks that Obama is arrogantly and ignorantly playing with fire because he's politically correct (or, you know, maybe hates America--not sure here).

But the point is, The Omnivore doubts Jim's a prepper.

But his advertisers sure thinks he and the rest of the NRO readership is--they don't put those ads on The Daily Kos (its pop-up is for volunteers).

So maaaaaaaaaaaaaybe--Just maaaaaaaaaaaaaybe, the reason that conservatives see the world so differently than "the rest of America" is because they are either more susceptible to apocalyptic conspiracy theory (FEMA!) or, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe because they have been sold the fuck out by their thought-leaders**.

The Omnivore knows Jim didn't sell the ad--but when asking why the world looks so different? Why Obama can have low popularity scores--but have people not decide he's a Sekret Amerika-Hating Muslim? Maybe it's because most of the country isn't consuming the apocalyptic media-message that is being thrown at them as though the NRO readers were ducks on a shooting-gallery track?

And ... Aaaaaaand if that were the case?

Then what Jim? If that were the case, what if the next Benghazi panel doesn't find anything new?

If the next bombshell in the long history of bombshell's also a dud?

What then?

Ehh ... The Omnivore knows the answer: The Truth Is Out There--We'll Get 'Em Next Time***.

* "obvious"

** Sorry--not meaning to call you Pajama-boy, Jim. Seriously.

*** Unless 'FEMA'

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Waiting For The Wave

(John Podhoretz of the New York Post) speaks for everyone* when he writes:

Every serious politico is baffled by the polling on this fall’s elections, in which Democratic Senate candidates across the country are doing a remarkable job of hanging in despite the general consensus that under conventional circumstances this would be a “wave” year for Republicans.

This is more or less true: as The Omnivore understands it there should be a wave! Why isn't there? Why is this a coin-toss election (at least right now)? JPod thinks it's because of the tech-gap:

The answer, I think, is far more technical than ideological. Democrats are vastly superior when it comes to the mechanics of American politics, and have been for nearly a decade, while the GOP’s technical skills have withered since 2004.
Maybe. Certainly there was a documented technical superiority gap for the 2012 elections. But The Omnivore isn't quite sure. After all, while Podhoretz correctly describes the Democrats campaigning on social media, which might influence election polling, the real impact of the technology we saw was actual Get Out The Vote voting

To The Omnivore, it looks like J-Pod is choosing the least uncomfortable rationale to the observed phenomena. Let's take them roughly in order of comfort:

Rationale Why It is Comforting Yes—But …
Skewed Polls We’re doin’ FINE! The Liberal media is lyin’ on us. 2012 … it still hurts.
Tech-Gap The center-right populace of course agrees with us—but because of the millennial technical gnomes the DNC employs we’re struggling … THIS TIME. We’ll get better! It’s not clear that a social-media gap exists now or that polled reluctant voters are being influenced through Facebook.
Voter Fraud The Democrats are cheaters and liars. We’re morally pure / superior. Total, absurd lack of evidence.
It’s The Republican Candidates … Duh. We’ve seen Republican candidates self-destruct. We know it happened in 2010. We just need more guys like Cruz. They don’t suck this time. This time they’re pretty good.
Sheeple It’s not our fault. It’s the lazy populace that just doesn’t listen. Hey—only 15% of the populace are following the election at all! So this sucks—but they’ll wake up! Wait for those Benghazi hearings to really get going! If, uh, people are not following and … uh … the 18-29 year-olds are following least (follow the links) why does the polling show a tie?
Brand Damage It isn’t … especially. If the Republican brand is badly enough damaged to make a tie out of what ought to be a wave, how bad is it??

What’s Really Going On?

The Omnivore suspects it’s this: Leadership fracture. The congressional Republicans have shown a remarkable lack of cohesion and policy-thought-leadership in the past 8 years. Their signature achievements, after all, were limiting Obama to one term and blocking the Affordable Care Act. This has got to have a negative impact on a “give us the steering-wheel” election. The good news is that (a) the GOP has a pretty darn good chance to hold the Senate after this and they will have a solid 2 years to promote a more positive (and hopefully, successfully enacted) agenda.

Let’s also keep in mind that they are trying to take a bunch of seats away from Democratic incumbents—which is always harder.

But all that aside, The Omnivore thinks there is simply two different games being played here.


The Game of Voters

When you play the game of voters you win … or you lose. Dying’s pretty medieval, eh? In this election—probably more than even 2012, the game-plan for each side has been different. The GOP is trying to solidify and rally their base to help ensure that high-probability voters don’t abandon the party. The Democrats are trying to engage low-probability voters and get them to the polls. This has two very different approaches and counter-strategies. This is why we see the Republicans making it hard to vote while the Democrats are trying to play up indignities to women / minorities / etc. in order to motivate them. It’s why we see Benghazi hearings (which play to the base but will convince almost no one else that anything interesting happened in … was it Syria? The Omnivore forgets) vs. the proposed Obama-Amnesty pronouncement.

Each of these strategies has an equal-and-opposite force effect: when you push on racial issues, GOP base voters feel like they’re being called racists and object to it. When you enact voter suppression, minorities feel oppressed and may be more likely to get in the game.

At the heart of all polling is a turn-out demographic model. This is used to project from the sample-size of actual calls / questions to the population being studied. Exactly how each polling place does that varies and it’s something of a secret as far as The Omnivore can tell. It’s what makes Poll-A more/less reliable than Poll-B (well, that and number of calls and how the questions are formulated).

While The Omnivore wouldn’t dream of unskewing anything, it is possible that we’ll see some kind of upset where the population that shows up was different enough from the projections to push this one way or another. If that does happen, The Omnivore thinks it would probably help the Democrats as the Republican demographic is probably both better understood and … erm … more easily reached by land-lines.

Take that as you will …

Also Read: Does the GOP Still Have a GOTV Data / Consultant Organizational Problem?

* "everyone"

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Politics of: Ebola

Seth Brundle: You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects... don't have politics. They're very... brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first... insect politician. Y'see, I'd like to, but... I'm afraid, uh...
Ronnie: I don't know what you're trying to say.
Seth Brundle: I'm saying... I'm saying I - I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake.
Ronnie: No. no, Seth...
Seth Brundle: I'm saying... I'll hurt you if you stay.
-- The Fly (1986) 
The Ebola Outbreak
There is hopefully no need for any kind of exhaustive refresher on this: the deadly hemorrhagic fever Ebola is 'out of control' in West Africa (and now other places). It has a very high morality rate, is spread through infected fluids (you must be splashed with blood, vomit, etc.), and causes you, when infected, to bleed through every mucous membrane in your body. It's a horrible way to die--and people are dying. Here are a few more 'recent' points to keep in mind:

Okay, So: What Are The Politics?
The Politics of Ebola are the Politics of hurricane Katrina. In 2005, category 5 hurricane Katrina struck and obliterated much of New Orleans--overflowing the levies and becoming one of America's major natural disasters. In the aftermath, although there were failures at all levels in the response, President Bush was especially marked for having failed in his office to see the nation through the turmoil. While the specifics of the response were complicated (FEMA red-tape was a nightmare, the New Orleans flood strategy was inadequate despite a decently well executed evacuation plan, and the National Guard forces were stretched thin due to overseas deployment) the over-all impression?
"Katrina showed [Bush] is incompetent," says Howard Dean, outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "Before Katrina, everyone, including America's friends and enemies, believed if something awful happened in the world, you could call in the Americans and they'd fix it." The government response to the hurricane, which devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, ruined that reputation, Dean argues.
For a party for whom 'Acts of God' is not just insurance terminology, it was especially frustrating to see this land at Bush's feet at the hands of what was seen as a left-wing media*.

This is why Ebola has to specifically be a presidential-level event. If it's a state or CDC (Federal) issue it loses the necessary gravitas. This is why we see so many of the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls involved: This is about the presidency.

The Ebola situation has (or, well, possibly maybe could have) the same contours as Katrina: a preventable disaster which spirals out of control due to a presidential response that is (a) too late, (b) too weak when it finally happens, and (c) devastating. The attempt to make Ebola "Obama's Katrina" is just one of many (19) tries--but at least it has two of the required three elements. Specifically:

  1. Shortly after Obama gave a speech saying Ebola would likely not "come to America," well, it came.
  2. Obama's response has not been to wall off air-travel from West African infected regions or impose a mandatory 21 day quarantine. It is possible that more people have already been infected in the US (despite the numbers above being pretty low) and--hey--there are an estimated 13,500 US visa holders in infected regions. If one of them thinks they have been exposed and the local hospitals are a death sentence? It's not a stretch to think they'd come to the states (quietly, of course--they want to get in) and then seek help here.

The formula is most clearly laid out here: The Case for Panic
Deadly, irrational, and determined, the intruder snuck across a weakened perimeter. Eluding capture, the intruder was detained only after missteps and close calls. The spin began soon after the threat was isolated. Information was selectively leaked. Half-truths and untruths were uttered. Responsibility was avoided; privileges and credentials asserted; authority reasserted. Trust us. Remain calm. Don’t panic.
The article cleverly links the recent White House intruder scenario to the Ebola event. The math (in the article) is incompetent government + corrupt elite = disaster. And, let's be clear--there is another element to this that makes it especially tasty: the Immigration angle. These people coming to our shores with Ebola? They're foreign black people. This probably plays better to the choir than the populace at large because immigration from Africa and illegals from Mexico are two very different things--but a great deal of effort was put into trying to find out if Duncan was an illegal.

So, okay: it could kinda work, right?

Probably not. What Ebola is mostly missing is the third leg of the stool: once introduced into the American environment it, in its current form, fails to spread as rapidly or widely as necessary to be a Katrina-level event.
Yes, the problem is that unless Ebola becomes airborne it is simply not contagious enough to create mass-havoc**. That will require a well coordinated media narrative and the fact that Ebola is, really, very very scary if you are right next to it. If you hear your neighbor cough report him!

* Possibly also disturbing: Super Storm Sandy and the last two RNC conventions being threatened by hurricanes ...

** In case this isn't clear: If someone has Ebola in the US and you are exposed to them you could well get it. What it (thus-far, we hope) lacks is the mutation to spread widely and easily when the patient is not very sick. Even if it were airborne through wet coughing, for example, this would not make it able to infect large crowds or travel "clandestinely" through the populace.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Weaponized Good News (the PEC v 538 Wars)

What you see above are the two "money shot" prediction forecasts from Princeton Election Consortium (top) and FiveThirtyEight (bottom). While these are not precisely identical (the PEC visual is where the race now-stands, the FiveThirtyEight is the November election prediction) the fact is that they are (a) pretty similar and (b) bitterly disputed.

In the smack-talk war between Nate Silver and Dr. Wang, the battle ground is Twitter and the Battle Space is over whose model is better.

The big difference? The meaningful difference? Despite Democratic numbers kinda "crashing" right now PEC gives Election Day Probability of Democrats keeping the Senate at 62%.

FiveThirtyEight gives them 40.7%

Wait A Minute--Which Is Right??
This is math, science, and reality--right? Objectively one of the two models has to be better. One of the two has to be right. Maybe. The problem is, The Omnivore can't tell you which better. Firstly, they were both very, very accurate in 2012. Secondly, their methods have changed slightly since, say, 2008 (which would give us a large enough sample size for comparison). It's also important to note that in 2012 PEC had a larger confidence of victory than 538--so this is the same pattern repeating here.

Thirdly, while PEC's model is pretty transparent and 538's explicitly contains secret sauce, by the time we reach November the models will have more or less converged (the secret-sauce is supposed to tell us where the polls will go--but The Omnivore doesn't have an understanding of Silver's mathematical degree of confidence in his prognostication to be able to say if the eventual convergence will be within that boundary). If they both wind up at more or less the same place in the end, is there really a difference?

Finally, The Omnivore is no quant. This is a battle for quants.

But that's not what interests The Omnivore. What interests The Omnivore is the weaponization of good news.

The Weaponization of Good News
In 2012 the polling aggregates--even within the Romney campaign showed he was behind--was pretty much always behind (save for just after the 1st debate) and really never had a chance anyway. What this "sensor data" (which is what polling is for our purposes here) was telling Republicans was that they were gonna lose.

What the Republican rank and file, pundit class, and bloggers did was respond by making up good news. They "unskewed the polls" to adjust the numbers until, hey, Romney was gonna crush Obama. Then they weaponized it.

This "weaponization" was taking the phrenological science of poll-unskewing (or just ignoring polling altogether) and turning it into a mass-media message. This gave it the cable-news credibility to penetrate deeply. Today there are people who feel certain there was unprecedentedly massive levels of election fraud so that Obama could win. How can you blame them? Karl Rove, at 10:30 PM on election night, seemed to believe the same thing.

The weaponization of this--taking what is essentially a placebo-talking point--and amplifying its signal-strength and credibility to the highest possible levels was driven in part by human nature (denial, observation bias, etc.)--but also in part by money. If The Omnivore were discussing a phenomena that wasn't just a pernicious lie, it would be called monetization.

The drive to monetize fake good news is also pretty central to human nature. If there is a demographic hungry for something, in a capitalist society someone will come and fill it. That's a feature, not a bug--so long as filling it isn't done with toxic food, exploding Pintos, and the like. It's also a very powerful motivation. People in a position to fill a need are generally driven to do so--there's profit in it.

So The Omnivore doesn't really blame the pundits who predicted a Romney victory based on fundamentals. The Omnivore doesn't quite blame the masses who were told--from the highest levels--that the GOP was poised to win. But The Omnivore does blame the people who unskewed the polls in the first place with the veneer of scientific "mysticism."

The Omnivore totally blames the media outlets that promoted this thinking--major bloggers, senior pundits, and television personalities who promoted this thinking. Whether it was really believed or not, (a) it should not have been and (b) the behavior was predatory.

So the real question is: Is this happening with the poll aggregators? Is PEC choosing its algorithm to "beat" 538 on the good-news front? Today, facing a prospect of (likely) losing the Senate, are the Democrats also "weaponizing" good news?

It Doesn't Look Like It
The Omnivore doesn't think so. Nate Silver has the actual monetized property to lose--he doesn't seem to be altering his percentages to "keep up" with PEC's sunnier forecast. He's unquestionably a Democratic sympathizer (as is Dr. Wang of PEC) so there isn't a partisan leaning keeping him from making more positive prognostications.

Indeed, while PEC's formula is out in the open, 538 uses internal adjustments which he could alter without it being obvious. If 538 felt it was competing with PEC (and it does--just, maybe, not for money) it could change things to compete.

The fact that this is not happening should be troubling for Republicans. While we might argue that the burn the GOP took in 2012 would have frightened off the Democrats from doing the same--but that isn't how people's brains really work. We might postulate that the mathematical nature of poll aggregation doesn't lend itself to lying--but poll unskewing was mathematical. It took place down in the cross-tabs. It took issue with the behind-the-scenes numbers. It was bad math--but it was math. Silver could convince himself to change some values and pop the victory % up to ... 55% to a Democratic Senate? That'd put him in the "good news" category.

No--it appears that for whatever reason the (democratic) poll aggregators are sticking to their guns. They're arguing about models--and not competing for eyeballs. The eyeballs are a result of the models, yes--PEC's rise in popularity is most likely partially because of its improved chances--but the  positive feedback loop where it improves chances as eyeballs go up isn't happening. And 538 isn't increasing to "try to keep up."

Why not?

Why did a reaction that was pervasive amongst Republicans fail to take place with Democrats?

The Omnivore isn't sure yet (intellectual integrity is possible--but The Omnivore is loathe to ascribe that to people in general). There are a few weeks left--and as Democratic chances dwindle (and they probably will), The Omnivore will be watching closely to see if anything changes.