Plus: Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta are launching an “observatory” for internet abuse at Stanford, and misconceptions about disinformation.
growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation,
partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly
roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.
used accessible language. And that can potentially be very powerful.” A raft of
new research shows that watching junky cable and other lowbrow TV is actually
making people dumber — literally lowering their IQs.
research published in the American Economic Review this month, Italian
researchers showed that people with greater access to former Italian prime
minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trashy entertainment TV network, Mediaset, in the
1980s were much more likely to vote for Berlusconi later in later elections.
Furthermore, people with greater exposure to Mediaset as children were “less
cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded as adults, and ultimately more
vulnerable to Berlusconi’s populist rhetoric.”
American Economic Association’s writeup of the research:
Berlusconi was an up-and-coming media entrepreneur hoping to fill a void in the
television market, which was dominated by a state-owned network driven by an
educational mission. Catering to a growing middle class eager to spend on
entertainment, Berlusconi spent the decade rolling out Mediaset to new markets
throughout the country.
time, Mediaset’s programming did not suggest that he was using it as a
propaganda tool for political gain. Nearly all the shows were shallow,
critically poorly received, and purely for fun with no educational value.
Mediaset did not have a news show component until 1990. Yet, the authors found
very real effects of their influence on viewers’ political sympathies.
language codes that were popularized by TV also made people much more
susceptible to the populist party because they used very simple language,”
Ruben Durante, one of the paper’s coauthors, said. “They used accessible
language. And that can potentially be very powerful.”
Tesei, another coauthor, spoke to The Washington Post’s Nikita Lalwani about
some of the findings.
Lalwani: You show that exposure to
entertainment TV most affected the voting behavior of the very young and the
very old. Were they affected in the same way?
Tesei: For the elderly, the effect was
happening through habit formation. They were hooked by the kind of television
that Berlusconi showed — the salacious shows and sports. They were then much
more likely to watch news shows on Mediaset when those shows were introduced
universally in the ’90s. And we know that news on Mediaset was slanted toward
the elderly, kids were not more likely to watch news on Mediaset later on —
there was no habit formation. What was happening was that kids who were
introduced to Mediaset in the 1980s were much more likely to grow up socially
and civically disengaged, and even more, they appear to be more cognitively
shallow compared to their peers, who grew up without this entertainment diet.
We were able to show that kids who grew up in Mediaset-exposed areas performed
significantly worse on standardized exams taken in adulthood.
results also applied to another Italian populist politician, Beppe Grillo and
his Five Star Movement, that was not as ideologically right-wing as Berlusconi.
“The fact that our results apply not just to Berlusconi but also to the Five
Star Movement suggests that there is perhaps a more general message,” Tesei
said. “Less civically minded voters may be more vulnerable to populistic
another Washington Post article covering the research:
result echoes a 2017 analysis in the same academic journal by a separate team
that used variation in channel listings to calculate that Fox News gave
Republicans a half-point boost in 2000, building up to a six-percentage-point
advantage in 2008 compared with a baseline scenario in which the channel didn’t
exist. They did not find a similar significant effect for MSNBC.
Italy, it’s not that television made voters more conservative. Instead, Durante
said, it seems to have made them more vulnerable to the anti-establishment
stances favored by the country’s populist leaders of all persuasions.
Upshot, Jonathan Rothwell rounded up this and other research about the social
effects of TV. Here’s what happened in Norway:
estimate the effect of cable television on I.Q. scores, the Norwegian scholars
analyzed data on the introduction of cable network infrastructure by
municipality. They calculated years of exposure to cable by considering the age
of eventual test takers when cable became available in their municipality. They
controlled for any potential geographic bias by comparing siblings with greater
or less exposure to cable television based on their age when cable
infrastructure was put in.
They estimate that 10 years of exposure to
cable television lowered I.Q. scores by 1.8 points. In related research, Mr.
Hernaes finds that exposure to cable television reduced voter turnout in local
“observatory” for internet abuse. Alex Stamos, who was formerly Facebook’s chief
security officer, is launching the Stanford Internet Observatory, with $5
million from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Per the press release, it’s “a
cross-disciplinary initiative comprised of research, teaching and policy
engagement addressing the abuse of today’s information technologies, with a
particular focus on social media. This includes the spread of disinformation,
cybersecurity breaches, and terrorist propaganda.” Renée DiResta, who was a
2019 Mozilla Fellow in Media, Misinformation, and Trust, is the program’s
research manager. Part of the initiative includes a course to be taught at
Stanford this fall:
Internet Observatory’s new course, “Trust & Safety Engineering,” will be
taught for the first time during Stanford’s fall 2019 academic quarter in the
Computer Science department. It will introduce the ways in which consumer
internet services are abused to cause real human harm, as well as provide
potential operational, product and engineering responses.
“There are many potential uses for machine
learning to keep people safe online, but this is something that is often
missing from the conversation,” said Stamos. “You hear that a company took down
500 accounts belonging to a certain group that spreads disinformation, but
don’t hear what we can learn from their operations so that we can do better in
the future. Our research platform and courses at Stanford intend to bridge that
is also hoping to get access to data from social media platforms, something
that has been difficult/impossible for researchers to do thus far, though
there’s been a bit more openness recently. Andy Greenberg writes in Wired:
observatory is currently negotiating with tech firms — Stamos names Facebook,
Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit as examples—that it hopes will offer
access to user data via API in real-time and in historical archives. The
observatory will then share that access with social scientists who might have a
specific research project but lack the connections or resources to grapple with
the immensity of the data involved. Stamos hopes that his data clearinghouse
might lower the technical barriers social scientists face now when they try to
study users on the internet at scale.
have to have a grad student write Python, they have to spend months negotiating
data access agreement with tech companies, they have to build a bunch of data
science infrastructure,” Stamos says. “We’re trying to do that work once, and
offer it to all these people.”
that access to data may not be an easy sell, even for someone with as many
Silicon Valley connections as Stamos. Facebook has been wary of any
data-sharing agreements with academics since its disastrous Cambridge Analytica
scandal, a privacy debacle — which happened under Stamos’ watch — for which the
FTC announced a $5 billion fine against the company just yesterday. The
European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation also limits what sort of
data tech firms can share about European users. When WIRED reached out to
Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Reddit about the observatory’s plan, Twitter and
Reddit declined to comment, though a Reddit spokesperson said the company
hadn’t yet been approached to share its data. Facebook and Google didn’t respond.
get wrong about disinformation The University of Washington’s Kate Starbird
writes in Nature about misconceptions around disinformation. She lays out
several; here’s one:
the most dangerous misconception is that disinformation targets only the
unsavvy or uneducated, that it works only on “others.” Disinformation often
specifically uses the rhetoric and techniques of critical thinking to foster
nihilistic skepticism. My student Ahmer Arif has compared it to listening to static
through headphones. It is designed to overwhelm our capacity to make sense of
information, to push us into thinking that the healthiest response is to
disengage. And we may have trouble seeing the problem when content aligns with
our political identities.