Category Archives: socy525spring2019

The influence of social media

In prior posts, I’ve discussed the significance of the title of my blog: “The medium is the message.” Our communication (message) is influenced by the method in which we communicate (medium). For example, when two people interact in person, then there is a two way conversation where both participate. However, most media tend to be a one-way conversation from a content producer to its consumer, such as books, newspapers, magazines, television, and movies. The Internet transforms this prior paradigm because it allows for one-way (the traditional media available online), two-way (email), and free for all discussions (chat rooms and discussion boards). This also is similar to Karlsen’s (2015) concept of opinion leaders influencing others within their networks. So, we’ve established that the medium has changed. How has the message changed?

One example is political messages through Twitter: the infamous example of President Donald Trump. His words become news all over the world from the traditional news media, social media, and blogsphere. Penney (2016) establishes the popularity of political messages on social media and examines their potential influence on the electorate. He argues that political campaigns have become similar to marketing campaigns in an attempt to persuade voters and establish a candidate’s brand.

What are the effects of the presidential tweets? An earlier article by Fuchs (2012) casts some doubt on the effects of social media. He states that the traditional media seems prone to exaggeration  that social media brings together “mobs” and this has created discussion around the technological effects of social media, which distracts from greater societal issues (why that “mob” formed in the first place due to inequity and inequality). However, Fuchs might be very relevant here. Trump’s tweets may distract from modern social problems and larger political issues. While the news media and politicians focused on “the wall,” what other political issues did not get attention? In addition, does quantity make up for quality if repeated tweets continue to gather attention?

I’ll admit that I feel a bit old because I remember the days when the  political commentators discussed the week’s events on television on Sundays. However, this sphere has expanded and anyone might gather enough followers to be an online opinion leader, although the most popular examples often have successful writing backgrounds too (such as Ariana Huffington or Ann Coulter).

The digital self

In Superconnected, Chayko (2017) discusses techno-socialization and the many variations of our self image. The digital environment and being face-to-face influence how we present ourselves. This made me think of several different examples:

  • Online surveys—the main problem with taking these personality quizzes for fun is whether we answer them based on what we might really do versus what we should do. Our network, via social media, tells us that we should complete these fun surveys and then tell all our friends about the results.
  • Massively multiplayer online role-playing games—no one is an blade-wielding sexy elf in real life. Everyone is pretending to be their fantasy character in a fantasy world. (Why do many men play female characters? Why do some games only feature male avatars?) Gamers form relationships, especially for more collaborative games, that require guilds or raids. Cosplay from these games also has become popular. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft might have had peak numbers of 10 million players worldwide.

While I could think about the non-digital predecessors for each of these examples, our world has exploded with new possibilities engendered by the digital age. Some make life more complicated and others easier, but technology helps us “lifelog” and document our events too.


The fallacies of “objective” biological data

Joel Best’s (2016) introduction to social problems outlines the problems with objectivism, the idea that a social problem exists when there is an objective measure of harm to society. However, this is a deceptive idea. What concept is truly objective? In the sixteenth century, “civilized” society would not have judged slavery to be a social problem. In the twenty-first century, we might consider slavery to be a fundamental human rights issue. What is a fundamental human right? The United Nations has a Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5 states: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Two controversial counterarguments immediately come to mind: 1) national security needs and 2) the death penalty. And down the rabbit hole we go… which is exactly why objectivism is problematic.

Browne’s (2009) article on Digital Epidermalization provides an excellent example of how biometric data has a patina of science, which is objective, right? However, biometric facial scans cannot distinguish darker skinned features as well as on lighter skin and Asian-descent women have fainter fingerprint ridges (along with elderly individuals and members of certain professions), which lead to a measurable failure of the technology in known instances. In addition to these racial implications, the science is not completely certain and highly subjective to user error.

In the above image, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) used Amazon’s Rekognition product, which misidentified 28 members of Congress as matches to arrest photos. The ACLU cited a significant concern: “Nearly 40 percent of Rekognition’s false matches in our test were of people of color, even though they make up only 20 percent of Congress.”

As another example, direct-to-consumer genetic testing has become popular in the mainstream audience to “uncover your origin” or “commit to a healthier you, inspired by your genes.” I’ve discussed this topic a bit before because these companies essentially have “black box” proprietary methodologies for creating neat charts about your origins. This Science News article even compares the varying results from five different services. Alternatively, this blog post nonchalantly describes how results can be different across four siblings:

Wait, what?? A Google search provided a few more articles that seem to confirm that ancestry results can differ just like appearance for siblings.

Anyway, these services offer results that seem definitive for an average person who doesn’t read the fine print explanation. Basically DNA samples have been taken from current populations and extrapolated to represent regions. One of the most convincing arguments about the problem with this approach also deals with race: South Africa. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch colonized the region and settlers became known as the Boers (or Afrikaners). This resulted in both White and Black South Africans. So, how does an ancestry test account for this historical context? If you had a White South African grandmother, would the result reveal a South African heritage or Dutch heritage? The companies make a decision to represent results based on subjective factors, so the science is not completely objective and certain as the charts make it seem.

What’s the lesson here? That there may be no objective truth? (Is teal actually a blue or green?–the answer might depend on the brain of the eye of the beholder.) This might be more of a philosophy question. Or that science is portrayed as objective and certain, but is often not really either? Science is an iterative process of hypotheses, experiments, and validation, where established ideas become theories, but still might be overturned by new evidence. We tend to forget that in science, the only certainty is uncertainty.


Social problems

Joel Best subscribes to the constructionist view of social problems. This means that people define social problems through a process of claiming an issue, using media coverage to persuade others to agree the issue exists, convince those in power to fix the problem, implement a solution, and have an outcome.

Let’s take a person I’ve talked about before: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a famous astrophysicist. The Washington Post stated that he is “likely the world’s most beloved astrophysicist — a strong ambassador for the flagging agency.” Tyson is an expert in his field with advanced degrees and media credits that include academic publications, the popular press, television, and radio. He’s also testified in front of Congress about the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2012.

Tyson’s testimony on the “Past, Present, and Future of NASA” still rings true today, so I’d like to deconstruct it as a claim to a social problem. According to Best, a persuasive claim has three components: grounds, warrants, and conclusions.

1. Grounds – The speech begins with a dramatic scenario that illustrates the problem: “Currently, NASA’s Mars science exploration budget is being decimated, we are not going back to the Moon, and plans for astronauts to visit Mars are delayed until the 2030s—on funding not yet allocated, overseen by a congress and president to be named later.”

2. Warrants – The audience should care because of nationalism: “For a while there, the United States led the world in nearly every metric of economic strength that mattered… In fact, most of the world’s nations stood awestruck by our accomplishments.”

economic growth: “When you innovate, you lead the world, you keep your jobs, and concerns over tariffs and trade imbalances evaporate.”

and inspiration: “Yet audacious visions have the power to alter mind-states—to change assumptions of what is possible. When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens’ ambitions.”

3. Conclusions – The problem can be fixed by allocating more money to NASA: “For twice that—a penny on a dollar—we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.”

The testimony inspired a #Penny4NASA as a citizen movement.

Now, here’s a recent chart of the NASA budget:

The commentary alongside this chart noted that presidential directives for space largely have failed because of a lack of increased funding to support new initiatives.

Another recent commentary stated that the public favors increased funding for NASA.

I searched Google News for the headlines for “NASA funding” or “NASA budget”:

While the story about unlimited funding is amusing, this issue is not at the forefront of current news events. Funding for space exploration is a cyclical issue awaiting further opportunity. The current news events have been discussing the impact of the government shutdown on some space related programs and contractors, but not its lack of budget.

Tyson also has been relatively quiet, but has been dealing with several accusations of harassment in his past (an effect from the #MeToo social movement) since early December 2018.