Celebrities and Politics: Why Are Voters Attracted to Shiny Objects?

What is it about celebrities?

Democrat Jon Ossoff wants to win an open primary on April 18 so he can represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

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Actress Alyssa Milano canvassed Ossoff’s district for him in March and offered voters a ride to an advance polling location.

According to various media, actors Alyssa Milano and Christopher Gorham‏, want Ossoff to win, too. Media tell us lots of other liberal celebrity actors support Ossoff as well, including Chelsea Handler, Kristen Bell, John Leguizamo, Sam Waterston, Connie Britton, Jessica Lange, Lynda Carter, Jon Cryer, Debra Messing, George Takei and Rhea Perlman.

I’m not sure yet where Kim Kardashian, who’s so well known for her political sophistication and deep thinking, stands on Ossoff’s race, but I’m sure the media will tell us if she ever blurts out something.

How did we get to the point where this matters, or at least reporters, reporters, pundits and political consultants think it does?

Did you know Elvis Presley supported Democrat Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 presidential election and John F. Kennedy in 1960, or that he shared his strong opinions on America’s cultural decline with President Nixon?

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President Nixon and Elvis Presley at the White House, 1970

Elvis was particularly incensed about the behavior of actress Jane Fonda, who was photographed at an anti-aircraft gun placement in Hanoi during the Vietnam war.

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Actress Jane Fonda at an anti-aircraft position in North Vietnam in July 1972

Like an updated Tokyo Rose, she’d also gone on Hanoi radio and petitioned American fighting men stationed to the south to lay down their arms because they were fighting an unjust war against the peace-loving North Vietnamese.

Did any of us care what Elvis thought about political issues? I don’t think so.

Did anybody vote for Adlai Stevenson because Elvis endorsed him? I doubt it.

How did we reach a point where the political opinions of pampered, self-absorbed, and often empty- headed celebrities influence our voting? It’s a virulent, ugly form of anti-intellectualism.

 Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

Americans are woefully uninformed about history and public policy. According to a Pew Research project, about a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.

A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University survey revealed that only 34 percent of registered voters can name the three branches of government, only 69 percent know which party controls the House of Representatives and just 21 percent can name the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Hard to believe, but according to Newsweek, 70 percent of Americans have no idea what the constitution, the country’s most important historical, political, and legal document even is.

But Americans do know the names, sexual proclivities, marital history, makeup choices, fashion choices and car crash-like personal lives of celebrities and, increasingly, they pay attention to their political opinions. And the media is thrilled to offer celebrities a platform to say what they think about climate change, refugees, the electoral college or whatever, no matter how nonsensical or shallow those views are or how hyping their views is a devaluation of actual expertise.

If there’s any hope it’s helpful to remember that celebrities like Katy Perry came out for Hillary in droves….and we know how that ended.

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Algorithm Politics: A Threat to Democracy

It’s not the Russians or fake news, the overhyped threats du jour, I’m most worried about. It’s algorithms.

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We’re all being sliced and diced like in an autopsy, analyzed and scrutinized so we can be messaged and manipulated. We are being told what we want to hear or what fits our biases. We accept lies because we’re being trained to do so.

As Howard Beale shrieked about television’s voice in the movie Network, “But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell…We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true!”

We’ve gotten so used to the manipulation we usually don’t recognize it.

While recently strolling about the Washington Square mall’s new Amazon bookstore, I noticed that some of its racks had embraced the a fortiori tactic of many online sellers, “If you like …, you’ll love ….”

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On one shelf, printed notes said that if I liked Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room”, I’ll love Paul Pen’s “Light of the Fireflies” (“which deals with some very deep and disturbing topics, including incest”), Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” (featuring “…an incredibly flawed and fragile character…”) and Wally Lamb’s “I know this to be True” (an Oprah Book Club Pick in 1998).

It looks like the store is just being helpful, but it it is really steering your purchasing decision  in a particular direction based upon your characteristics and previous behavior.

It’s like LinkedIn alerting you to job openings that might appeal to you and Twitter feeding you promoted tweets based on your profile information, mobile device location, IP address or apps on your device.

It’s like Facebook delivering information to you on topics you’ve already signaled an interest in with a bias you’ve already displayed, and cutting out contrasting views, or not showing you certain ads based on your ethnicity (as it did until recently).

In Sept. 2016, ProPublica, an independent, non-profit that produces investigative journalism, wrote about Facebook having a comprehensive set of dossiers on its more than 2 billion members.

“Every time a Facebook member likes a post, tags a photo, updates their favorite movies in their profile, posts a comment about a politician, or changes their relationship status, Facebook logs it,” ProPublica said. “When they browse the Web, Facebook collects information about pages they visit that contain Facebook sharing buttons. When they use Instagram or WhatsApp on their phone, which are both owned by Facebook, they contribute more data to Facebook’s dossier.”

And in case that wasn’t enough, ProPublica said, Facebook also buys data about users’ mortgages, car ownership and shopping habits. Talk about invasive.

In a TED Talk, Eli Pariser, Moveon.org’s Board President, called this the “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.”

It’s like Breitbart and The Daily Beast satisfying their conservative and progressive audiences with red meat, allowing each group to retreat to what University of Wisconsin Journalism Prof. James Baughman has called “safe harbors”.

Algorythms are being used to personalize all your communications, constantly reaffirming and constraining your current perspectives, establishing and solidifying your opinion silos. As they get more sophisticated and widely used algorithms are creating what Pariser calls your “filter bubble”, accentuating rifts and perverting our democratic system.

When you log on to Facebook, an algorithm takes into account countless variables to predict what you want to see. Facebook also uses algorithms to categorize your political bent, taking into account your full range of interactions, including the pages you like and the political leanings of people who like the same pages you do.

If you want to know how Facebook categorizes you, just go to facebook.com/ads/preferences. Under the “Interests” header, click the “Lifestyle and Culture” tab. You may have to click on “More” to find it. Then look for a box titled “US Politics.” In parentheses, it will describe how Facebook has categorized you, such as liberal, moderate or conservative.

This and other information is used by opinion influencers to target you. Among those influencers are media of all stripes and politicians of all persuasions.

Politicians have long sought to appeal to different segments of voters with targeted messaging and carefully constructed personas, but until recently the process has been fairly rudimentary.

The image-making tactics described in Joe McGinnis’ groundbreaking book “The Selling of the President” about marketing Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race, came as a shocking surprise to a naive general public back then.

But the tactics that were pathbreaking almost 50 years ago are now old hat. They’ve been superseded by once unimaginable data collection and analysis and unforeseen content delivery systems.

Algorithm advocates are adamant that what’s being done is good for you. “Humans are facing an increasing number of choices in every aspect of their lives,” Netflix’s VP of Product Innovation Carlos A. Gomez-Uribe and Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt wrote in a co-published paper last year. “We are convinced that the field of recommender systems will continue to play a pivotal role in using the wealth of data now available to make these choices manageable, effectively guiding people to the truly best few options for them to be evaluated, resulting in better decisions.”

Gomez-Uribe and Hunt argued that Netflix’ impressive system, which breaks down films into over 75,000 hyper-specific sub-genres and uses those, and your past behavior, to make recommendations, is obviously a great thing because 80% of hours streamed at Netflix end up being of recommended films.

But Issie Lapowsky, at Wired, is less sanguine about the implications of algorithms, arguing that there’s a dark side to their use. “This (2016) election has shown us how the same platforms that put a world of facts and information at our fingertips can just as easily be used to undermine basic truths,” she wrote on Nov. 7.

In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil argued that algorithms pose as neutral tools, but too often exploit people and distort the truth, contributing to the erosion of democracy.

“The social network (i.e. Facebook) may feel like a modern town square, but thanks to its tangle of algorithms, it’s nothing like the public forums of the past,” she said. “The company determines, according to its interests and those of its shareholders, what we see and learn on its social network. The result has been a loss of focus on critical national issues, an erosion of civil disagreement, and a threat to democracy itself.”

Algorithms cause us to “contribute to our own miseducation”, reinforcing echo chambers and making us more partisan, O’Neil said.  “Thanks in part to filtering and personalization… our information has become deeply unbalanced, skewed, and has lost its mooring.”

The increasing sophistication of data gathering and analysis reflected in algorithms is also allowing politicians to shape shift for almost each individual voter. A politician used to be one person, or maybe two if you didn’t like him. It used to be that a presidential candidate delivered similar personas and key messages to  all audiences. If he didn’t, his duplicity was exposed. Today, multiple personas and positions are carefully constructed  and messages are carefully targeted so they can be delivered to tiny slices of the electorate, often with no broader public awareness.

Micro-messaging allows specific online messages to be delivered to a certain group, such as just to attendees of the 2016 National Right to Life Convention at the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport  in Herndon, VA, or even to two members of a family in the same house with different views.

Often the dissection of voters allows a message to be massaged such that the recipient on social media or other channels believes she and the politician are in agreement, even if that’s not the case.  For example, an anti-union Congresswoman might tell a same-minded constituent of by her support for a right-to-work bill, while telling a union supporter about her vote for higher infrastructure spending that tends to reward unions.

Stanford Prof. Neil Malhotra’s research led him to suspect that this kind of  hypocrisy helps explain how members of Congress can get away with voting in a highly partisan or polarized way when their constituents are actually much more moderate.

“These people are good strategic communicators who can potentially take very extreme positions that are out of step with their constituents but then massage them with language,” Malhotra said in a Stanford Business article.

Of course, targeting voters is hardly a new thing; politicians have been doing it forever. But now the databases are substantially more comprehensive, sometimes scarily so, the messaging vehicles, such as social media, can be much more individualized and the political elite are fully embracing the new technology.

“Algorithms show us what we like, not what is ‘right’ ”, said Sebastian Buckup on Quartz. “As a result, they increase ideological segregation rather than creating a digital agora. Influencers no longer waste their time with facts…Rather than seeking truth, the age of data is creating its own.”

That new truth will put more power in the hands of manipulators who won’t have our best interests at heart.

Asked, “How did you go bankrupt?”, Ernest Hemingway replied, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

That’s how our democracy will collapse, too, if algorithmic tools aren’t tamed to function in our best interest.

 

Are you liberal or conservative? Facebook thinks it knows.

liberalconservativeThe New York Times reported today on Facebook’s efforts to classify you so it can sell that info to advertisers.
According to the NYT, if you want to know how Facebook categorizes you, just go to facebook.com/ads/preferences on your browser. (You may have to log in to Facebook first.)
 
Under the “Interests” header, click the “Lifestyle and Culture” tab.
 
Then look for a box titled “US Politics.” In parentheses, it will describe how Facebook has categorized you, such as liberal, moderate or conservative.
 
The NYT says Facebook makes a deduction about your political views based on the pages that you like — or on your political preference, if you stated one, on your profile page.
 
Even if you don’t like any candidates’ pages, if most of the people who like the same pages that you do — such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream — identify as liberal, then Facebook might classify you as one, too.
 
But the system isn’t foolproof. I checked and it said I’m a liberal. Anybody who knows me knows that couldn’t be further from the truth. So much for data analysis.

Merkley’s money: pick your poison

I got a friendly personal note from Senator Jeff Merkley the other day. Well, it was addressed to me and had his signature, so I think it was personal.

Anyway, he told me that if I’m “fed up with special interests always getting their way in Washington” he needs my help because “the special interests that are used to calling the shots are hell-bent on defeating me in 2014.” And in a kind of ironic twist, he said he needs lots of money because every supporter he adds today will be “a rejection of the big money politics that’s created a government by and for the powerful.”

This is the same man who has raised nearly $8 million from the special interests that he embraces, particularly unions, lawyers and law firms, and real estate interests. In the DC game, it’s more a matter of picking your poison than staying pure.

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During 2009 -2014, principal contributors to Merkley’s campaign have been:

 

Industry    Total raised       From Individuals From PACS
lawyers/law firms $337,313 $259,615 $77,698
Leadership PACs $166,500 0 $166,500
Real estate interests $146,868 $74,358 $72,510
Building trade unions $117,000 0 $117,000

 

The lawyer/law firm contributors include the American Association for Justice, also known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America ($26,000) and the Boston-based law firm, Thornton & Naumes ($25,000). Thornton & Naumes is a heavy hitter in the contributions game, having contributed $326,250 so far during the 2014 election cycle. That made it the top contributor to 23 members of Congress, all but one a Democrat.

The trial lawyers have been long-time big-time money machine for the Democratic Party. Already losing tort-reform battles in states run by Republican governors and legislatures, and threatened by the GOP-led House, the trial lawyers are deathly afraid of having to deal with a GOP-led Senate, too, so they’re manning the barricades and handing out cash..

Another special interest heavily invested in Merkley is the real estate industry, blamed by some for exacerbating the housing collapse by promoting easy-credit policies.

Then there are the unions. Now there’s a special interest.   Unions making big contributions to Merkley in the 2014 election cycle include:

  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, $30,000
  • Communications Workers of America, $25,000
  • National Electrical Contractors Assn., $25,000
  • International Association of Fire Fighters, $23,500
  • Operating Engineers Union, $20,000
  • Teamsters Union, $20,000
  • Painters & Allied Trades Union, $18,000
  • International Longshoremen’s Association, $18,000
  • International Association of State/County/Municipal Employees, $16,500.

In 2013, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions–was 11.3 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, was 14.5 million.

The strongest union representation in 2013 was with public-sector workers, which had a union membership rate (35.3 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.7 percent). This reflects a fairly steady decline in union membership over the years. Thirty years ago, for example, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

Unions in the United States are waging an aggressive effort to maintain their membership and to support union-friendly government policies. And Merkley’s on board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merkley’s money: what a difference a term makes

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Things are different now.

When Democrat Jeff Merkley first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008, he raised a total of $6,512,231.

Now that he’s a Senator, he’s already reported raising $6,286,013 for his reelection and the 2014 race, in theory, hasn’t even begun. The Republicans haven’t even chosen who will run against him.

That means Merkley’s total haul is likely to go much higher as individuals, special interests and Democratic Party funds ramp up their donations to keep him in office.

The two parties are in a no-holds-barred struggle for control of the Senate, where pollsters and analysts think the Republicans have a shot at taking control with a good showing in the November 2014 elections. Merkley isn’t often mentioned as being in a high-risk race, but then former Senator Gordon Smith wasn’t thought to be vulnerable early on either.

With 5 years as a U.S. Senator now behind him, the sources of Merkley’s donations are shifting. A smaller share is coming from individual contributors and twice as much from political action committees (PACs). Also, more unions are stepping up as big contributors, his big donors have less of an Oregon focus and Merkley isn’t having to dig into his own pocket.

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According to the Center for Responsive Politics, contributions to Merkley’s campaign committee for his 2008 campaign and for his 2014 campaign as of Dec. 31, 2013 break down as follows:

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For his 2008 Senate race, Merkley’s largest 10 contributors (individuals and PACs) to his campaign committee were:

JStreetPAC $78,180
Council for a Livable World $55,889
State of Oregon employees $35,050
Oregon Health & Science University $33,964
Moveon.org $26,731
Stoel, Rives et al $23,323
League of Conservation Voters $21,500
Intel Corporation $17,920
Newmark Knight Frank $17,300
Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers $17,200

The largest contributor to his 2008 campaign, Washington, D.C-based JStreetPAC, makes contributions to candidates who support a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and robust American military aid to Israel. “I am and will continue to be a staunch supporter of the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel,” Merkley said during his 2008 campaign.“I will always seek to ensure its strength and foster its growth.”

The second largest contributor to his 2008 campaign, Council for a Livable World, is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to reducing the danger of nuclear weapons. Merkley subsequently voted in 2010 for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia and in February 2014, Merkley and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would cut $100 billion over the next decade from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget.

The bill, S. 2070, would shut down all U.S. missile defense activities, reduce from 12 to eight the number of SSBN(X) ballistic-missile submarines that are set to replace the retiring Ohio-class fleet and limit to eight the number of Ohio-class submarines that can currently be fielded. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Armed Services where its languishing.

The largest 10 contributors (individuals and PACs) to Merkley’s campaign committee for his 2014 race as of the end of 2013 are significantly different, with much less of an Oregon focus:

Votesane PAC $31,250
Thornton & Naumes $25,000
Intel Corporation $22,050
Honeywell Intl. $20,000
Operating Engineers Union $20,000
Intl. Association of Firefighters $18,500
Blue Cross/Blue Shield $17,100
League of Conservation Voters $15,314
American Crystal Sugar $15,000
Communications Workers of America $15,000

Votesane PAC, a non-partisan channel for political donations, has funneled $1.6 million to candidates in the 2014 election cycle, with almost all of it going to Democrats.

The only union showing up in Merkley’s list of top 10 contributors for his 2008 race was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at $17,200. Three unions show up as his biggest contributors for the 2014 race so far with a total of $53,500.

Also making their debut as major Merkley contributors are individuals from Thornton & Naumes, a Boston, Mass. law firm with class action expertise that has represented people claiming they were victims of asbestos and toxic exposure, defective products, financial fraud, and personal injury accidents.. Law firms and lawyers have been the top contributors to Merkley’s 2014 campaign as of Dec. 31, 2013, donating a total of $296,363.

This only reveals, of course, donations up the end of 2013. Expect a lot of shifts as the campaign progresses.

Merkley has already spent $3,045,241, or almost half, of the funds he’s raised since 2008. Recently, the largest single amount has gone to Mandate Media,a Portland-based internet strategy,services,and advertising firm specializing in progressive political candidates and advocacy organizations. Mandate is also associated with BlueOregon, a widely distributed progressive e-newsletter.

The top 5 recipients of the campaign’s recent expenditures were:

Mandate Media $200,485
CHS Mailing $141,305
Kauffman Group $125,163
Linemark Printing $ 71,639
Benenson Strategy Group $ 47,000

It’s important to recognize that much of the money now being spent on campaigns is so-called independent expenditures, spending by groups and individuals who claim they are not coordinating their activities with a candidate’s campaign committee.

In Merkley’s 2008 race, for example, according to FindTheBest, the following outside groups spent about $675,000 in support of his candidacy:

Committee Amount

Service Employees International
Union Committee on Political Education
(SEIU Cope) $430,238
League of Conservation Voters Inc. $145,317
Democratic Senatorial Committee $ 47,746
League of Conservation Voters
Action Fund $ 40,862
Moveon.org Political Action $ 7,026

It’s likely that similarly large amounts of independent expenditures will occur in the 2014 race.

Data sources: The Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org), a non-profit, non-partisan research group based in Washington, D.C.; FindTheBest (www.findthebest.com; http://bit.ly/1nYKKSA),a network of for-profit websites connected to help consumers and businesses make informed decisions.

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