Categories
Media

Rethinking our Twitter Twitchy Actions

Cleaning up after the bird

Very interesting piece by Sam Bibble at Gawker on Justine Sacco. Sacco was the PR person who tweeted a bit of satire that blew up in her face, and almost destroyed her career.

The problem with Twitter is every post lacks context. You don’t know the person to know if they’re joking. You haven’t seen the build-up to know if the post is ironic, satirical, or a true belief. And it’s so damn easy to retweet the actions and reactions, and to get caught up in the rush to condemn. That’s the bad, the very horrid part of Twitter.

At the same time, Twitter can be damn useful. Anyone who closely follows the Ferguson events will tell you that you can find more up-to-date information in Twitter than any in any news site. We can find a lot of racist crap, true, but we also found livestream links, breaking news, and even thoughtful insight, 140 characters at a time.

Bibble’s advice for weathering a Twitter storm is good—don’t engage, you’ll only had fuel to the fire. But maybe we should seriously re-think our twitchy actions. There are two kinds of outrageous tweets at the core of these storms. The first is the satirical tweet, taken out of context; if we retweet these, we can be harming an innocent person. The second type of outrageous tweet is from those who want attention; if we retweet what they post, all we’re doing is giving them the attention they want.

I watched this happen with person claiming to be a journalist, who tried to write himself into Ferguson’s history and failed. Every new and outrageous tweet of his that got caught up and magnified resulted in him getting at least a hundred new followers. In our outraged reaction, we gave him exactly what he wanted, and now he’s been featured in publications such as the New York Times, Slate, and the Washington Post. We didn’t create the monster, but we sure gave it juice.

Categories
Government

Torture and Learned Helplessness

image from Seligman's research

My senior psychology research project was about “learned helplessness”, based on the work by Martin E. P. Seligman. He saw it as the underlying basis for depression, while I was interested in its effect on workers.

I have written about learned helplessness in the past. Oddly enough, one of the writings is titled, Learned Terrorism, posted in 2002. Others are The Value of Anger, and What’s the Use?

I would never have dreamed that this theory would become the foundation for a system of torture used by the CIA against US prisoners. All I can say is the practitioners most likely discovered what I did, years ago: you can’t artificially engineer “learned helplessness” directly. Not to the extent these interrogators wanted. You can in dogs, but you can’t in humans. If anything, attempting to do so can have an opposite effect than the one intended. Rather than generate the helplessness that would, somehow, make the prisoners compliant, it could make them even more determined not to cooperate.

For learned helplessness to occur, circumstances have to meet a specific set of criteria. They would have to get the prisoners to internalize the current events; to see themselves as the cause for the negative circumstances. Yet individuals differ in how they internalize negative events–there is no one size fits all technique you can use to create the same effect with everyone. The person would also have to feel nothing they can do will change their circumstances. This runs counter to the seeming desired effect of the interrogators. After all, if you want a person to respond with information in order to prevent negative events, you don’t engineer in them a feeling that no matter what they do, or say, nothing will ever change.

So if they did, somehow, engineer “learned helplessness” in the prisoners, in the hope of showing that the effects can be mitigated by providing data, the prisoners would not have been able to make this association. The whole basis of the theory is that the sufferer would have been unable to see the solution offered. Either the engineering would fail, and the prisoner would dig in, even harder, against cooperating, or the engineering would succeed, and the prisoner would become completely apathetic. In both cases, the prisoner would either say nothing (because of anger or apathy), or they’d say everything—they’d blather along until their captors seemed satisfied with their blather, completely indifferent to any possible negative consequences for giving incorrect information, because no matter what they did, nothing would change.

Unbelievable. Not only was the psychology abused and twisted, it wasn’t even accurately applied.

Categories
Media

Ferguson: Media, You are Hurting Us

screenshot of Jon Stewart on Crossfire

The story read that the FBI had arrested two New Black Panther members for buying explosives to bomb Ferguson protests. Not long after, though, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch posted a story that what really happened is the FBI arrested two men for providing false information when buying guns. And that New Black Panther association? Well, that’s implied because a “police source” made the connection. Not the men. Not officially from the FBI. A “police source”.

One of the many sources who have added to the confusion and alarm associated with the Ferguson protests. The same sources that both Twitter users and mainstream press reporters have quoted without fact or verification. There is some excuse for the Twitter users: it’s not their job to fact check what they retweet. The same cannot be said for the media, who have done a piss poor job of covering Ferguson.

Even today, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post have stories about a $5,000 bounty placed on Darren Wilson’s head by a black militant group. The only problem is, it’s all fake, a fraud. There is no black militant group. There is no $5,000 bounty. It’s all one anonymous Twitter user making the claim among a set of overly fantastic and conflicting claims, in an account that demonstrates glaringly obvious disconnects in linguistic styles. A Twitter account for a group that has absolutely no hint of existence outside of Twitter. Even photos purportedly showing the Twitter user’s hands holding a box of ammo, with dark implications of future mayhem, generated little but doubt from other Twitter users primarily because the hands looked remarkably white, and what most people missed, remarkably feminine. So much for discussions about “fellow warriors”.

[Tweet removed as account no longer exists]

(The only other reference to the group was a pulled Go Fund Me page.)

It was all fake, yet these stalwarts of the press, these icons, dutifully copied each other without any of their journalists once going, “Hey. Maybe we should fact check this or something.”

CNN writes last week about a Grand Jury decision on Friday, and it wasn’t because they had inside information, as the implication might be. No, it was nothing more than a guess. So we end up having a press conference and all sorts of stories on Saturday about no Grand Jury decision happened on Friday. That’s the same as saying, “We didn’t get hit by an asteroid this weekend”, or, “There’s a lot of snow in Buffalo”.

How much confusion has been generated by dutifully quoting Chief Jackson from Ferguson, as he makes assertions in the AM, only to add “clarifications” later that day or the next? By the time the media report the clarifications it’s already too late: the seeds of doubt are sown, and mismatched stories get flung about in Twitter, like stones fired from slingshots.

All these stories do is add to the tension and distrust. They generate unnecessary suspicion, and add fuel to an already volatile situation. It is like members of the media have gotten together over a beer somewhere and said to each other, “You know, riots in Ferguson would be good for ratings. What can we do to make it happen?”

What did Jon Stewart say on Crossfire years ago? Before his appearance on the show signaled its impending doom?

Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.

Media, you are hurting us.

Categories
Government

Healthcare Sign Up: New and Improved

I signed up for healthcare coverage for 2015 at Healthcare.gov. Unlike last year, absolutely no problems with the system. The only hiccup occurred with United Healthcare when I tried to review its provider network—that system seems to be unable to stand the load. The government site, though, was a piece of cake.

I was able to get a plan that was about a third of what I paid this year. It’s more of a managed plan where I have to use a set of providers, but I’m OK with the providers. I stayed with Coventry because they provided good coverage this year, and they seem to be the only provider who has its online act together.

Only one problem with this year’s sign up, and it’s bureaucratic not system specific: proving income.

To be eligible, I have to mail (hard copy), or upload proof of income for 2015. I have to send in one of the following:

   Wages and tax statement (W-2)
 · Pay stub
 · Letter from employer
 · Self-employment ledger
 · Cost of living adjustment letter and other benefit verification notices
 · Lease agreement
 · Copy of a check paid to the household member
 · Bank or investment fund statement
 · Document or letter from Social Security Administration (SSA)
 · Form SSA 1099 Social Security benefits statement
 · Letter from government agency for unemployment benefits

I’m a self-employed writer, which means my income is erratic. According to the notice, the self-employment ledger can be pre-filled in with estimates. I keep a spreadsheet, which I guess will have to become my self-employment ledger. Or I can send a copy of my lease or bank statement, but that doesn’t really prove my income. It’s bizarre, and more than a little irritating.

There’s a thing called the 1040—why this isn’t acceptable, I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m all finished. Now what the hell will the GOP have to bitch about if they can’t bitch about Healthcare.gov?

Categories
Government Legal, Laws, and Regs

Before you sign that petition

The USDA has been busy approving genetically modified crops for cultivation, including a potato and alfalfa. I’ll have much more to say on GMO later, but I wanted to focus on one aspect of the approval process—the submittal of public comments.

Before the USDA approves a new GMO crop, it opens the approval for public comments. The USDA has to address all of the comments, in one way or another, before the approval. The same holds true for all of the government agencies, and most decisions made by those agencies: the decision goes through a period of public commentary, and the agency has to read each comment and ensure any concerns in the comment are addressed. An example is the recent invitation for the public to comment on the USDA’s proposed changes to the Conservation Stewardship Program.

The GMO potato approval received exactly 308 comments. Considering how controversial genetic modification of food crops is, you might be surprised that there were so few comments, but no there were only 308 comments that the USDA addressed.

Of course, one of the comments was a consolidated document consisting of “identical or nearly identical letters, for a total of 41,475 comments.” What effect did all those 41,475 separate letters have on the USDA decision? They had the effect of one, single, submitted comment.

Frequently when a government decision is opened for public commentary, one site or another will start up a petition for people to add copy and paste comments that the organization will submit to the agency on their behalf. And in every single case, the entire collection of signatures becomes exactly one comment. For the most part, it doesn’t matter how many signatures are attached to the comment, it’s still treated like one comment. It doesn’t matter how many letters are attached if they’re identical, or nearly identical: they’re treated as one comment.

The only time the number of signatures matters, is when there’s enough publicity associated with the signatures to generate interest from the White House or Congress who will then intervene on behalf of the group of people. For the most part, you might as well spend your time knitting socks or tweeting what you had for lunch, for all the impact it will have to submit a comment through a petition.

However, if you submit a comment directly to the agency, it gets counted as one comment. The concerns you thoughtfully detail do have to be addressed. The comment does have an impact. The impact might be small, but it isn’t negligible. Signing your name to a petition is, for the most part, negligible. You’re not doing a damn thing. Not when it comes to federal rulemaking and decisions.

You’re better off focusing on issues that really matter to you and taking the time to write a detailed, thoughtful comment related to those specific issues, than you are blindly signing every petition that comes your way in Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.