The Danger of Talking about ‘Junk’ News

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Discussion of so-called fake news is gradually – maybe rapidly – shifting to the concept of ‘junk news’, and I fear this could be a dangerous move. I agree that the concept of fake news has many downsides, not the least of which is the degree it has been politicized. However, the shift to junk news might have even worse implications. My main concern is that it provides more of a rationale for blocking or filtering news, as if it were spam, for example.

This evening, the science reporter at PBS, Miles O’Brien, delivered an informative story about ‘Junk News‘. It was well produced, but it captured a concern of mine that has been growing throughout the debate over misinformation. It also gradually moved into a discussion of work at Facebook designed to move so called junk news off the screens of more users. Facebook representatives were thankfully adverse to agreeing they should edit the news, as if they were a newspaper, but they felt justified in looking for algorithms to diminish the visibility of news they viewed of low quality.

I for one am worried about this drive, as it will clearly do more than accomplish its stated objective. It will also be likely to promote mainstream news outlets even more than presently favored, since they will be safe sources. It will downgrade blogs and the opinions and views of networked individuals, which are at the heart of a more democratic collective intelligence.

So I will stop using junk news except as a target of criticism. I lean towards crowd sourced ratings of blogs and posts as I’d prefer the wisdom of the crowd over the wisdom of Facebook monitors, but that is what search seeks to accomplish. At least fake news is understood to be a politically charged concept, but junk news is a concept which also has serious political implications, if my fears are justified.

AT&T’s Tarnished Brand by A. Michael Noll

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

AT&T’s Tarnished Brand

A. Michael Noll

May 16, 2018

© Copyright 2018 AMN

The payment by AT&T of over $1/2 million to President Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen has tarnished AT&T’s reputation and brand. It also raises concerns about the wisdom and competence of AT&T’s senior management.

Decades ago, the AT&T brand meant a lot to most consumers in the United States. AT&T owned the Bell System, which supplied telecommunication service as a regulated monopoly. In those old days, AT&T took its responsibility to the public strongly to supply quality service at affordable prices. However, AT&T was broken up and went through various divestitures, until in 2005, what was left of AT&T was acquired by Southwestern Bell. In effect, Southwestern Bell, a former Bell telephone company, cloaked itself in the AT&T identity (its former parent). And now the AT&T brand has been tarnished, as it has been revealed that AT&T paid over a $1/2 million to Michael Cohen, virtually as a gift, with no real work expected or received.

The two large remaining Baby Bells today are AT&T and Verizon, and they usually act in concert. If AT&T paid off Cohen and Verizon did not, a plausible explanation is that AT&T clearly was hoping that Cohen would exert influence to obtain government approval of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner.

The proposed acquisition of Time Warner by ATT is fraught with questions. Would this acquisition create far too much control over content and the network conduit? Would it be too much vertical integration with no benefit to consumers? What does AT&T know about the entertainment business, other than that its antics certainty seem entertaining?
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A. Michael Noll is a retired professor emeritus of communications. His earlier opinion of the AT&T proposed acquisition of Time Warner is at: http://quello.msu.edu/att-goes-hollywood/

A. Michael Noll

Smart Devices – Foolish Users by A. Michael Noll

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Smart Devices – Foolish Users

A. Michael Noll

April 26, 2018

© Copyright 2018 AMN

It seems we have become slaves to our computers and smart phones, with near constant updating, synching, and battery recharging. The devices might be considered “smart,” but the users seem to be “foolish” and perhaps even “stupid.”

We are slaves to these devices. We need to feed them electricity to keep them charged, and groom them with updates. They disturb us with interruptions and demands for our attention. We become mesmerized and perhaps hypnotized by what they display to us on their screens.

We discover that their real owners are the suppliers of information, such as Facebook, Google, and the “cloud.” We willingly give over our most intimate personal information, and then seem surprised when it is misused.

They will evolve, we are told, with artificial intelligence into even smarter devices. We will be left wondering whether their artificial intelligence should be contrasted with our apparent natural stupidity. But the myth of the coming artificial intelligence is nothing new – we have been waiting for decades for the dawn of this new age. For me, I am not smart enough for a smart phone, but if I had one, I would put it away in a drawer — and forget it. It could then linger in its “smartness,” while I have my own life to enjoy without interruption and caring for its upkeep.

A. Michael Noll

MSU’s Crisis Forum: Notes on a Discussion at the Quello Center

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

MSU’s Crisis Forum: Raising Questions

Notes on the Forum of 9 February 2018

The Quello Center hosted a one-hour ‘conversation about communication and the abuse scandal’ on 9 February. A small group of colleagues shared their views on communication issues related to the sex abuse scandal as it continues to unfold at MSU. The discussion was held in the Quello Center Meeting Room under The Chatham House Rule, so that no quotes would be attributed to any participant. It was a lively discussion of sensitive topics that raised many questions. The key theme arising from the discussion was around ‘listening’.

First, it was argued by colleagues thinking hard about this issue that the most positive approach we can take to communication with not only external audiences, but also with those inside the university, is to listen, rather than focus on offering our opinions or answers. We don’t need to be a spokesperson for the University or the College. In fact, listening might well be the most valuable approach, particularly in these early days, when we are all still learning what happened. This can help us from being defensive and help demonstrate that we share many of the concerns and questions raised by others. Two days after our discussion, this theme featured in an editorial by the Lansing State Journal, entitled ‘move MSU forward by listening’ (11 Feb 2018).

Secondly, in discussing what we need to convey to all of our audiences, there was general consensus on one simple but powerful message conveyed by one of our group: “We all need to listen to women and girls.” Due process requires all parties to be heard and taken seriously when there are claims of sexual abuse.

“We all need to listen to women and girls.”

This message resonated more or less with all on several fronts. First, it is genuinely true, and applicable to all the actors involved with this disaster, from all the institutions to all the individuals associated with the victims and survivors. It is not simply a prescription for MSU. Also, it is a clear and simple message that avoids some of the ambiguities surrounding more abstract notions of the larger systemic or structural issues. There might well be serious structural problems, but at least one participant argued that such general points seem less likely to translate into concrete behavioral norms – certainly at the individual level – than the concrete prescription that we listen to women and girls.

Teal Ribbons Tied to MSU

The disaster around Larry Nassar has metastasized into other issue areas, such as the general safety of women at MSU and on other college campuses, and the governance of the university, as two examples. Since it is increasingly impossible to deal with specific issues in this developing mix of related issues, it may be that listening is one of the key approaches that are relevant to all of these assorted issues.

One participant argued that this should be put more broadly, such as applying to the ‘powerless’ and not only women and girls, such as: “We need to listen and empower the powerless.” Another argued that listening is more in the control of all of us, as opposed to empowering individuals and groups, which is a more ambitious and system-centric problem.

Another participant expressed concern that mandatory reporting rules could eliminate thoughtful, supportive conversations about discrimination and harassment. Instead, conversations might be avoided or immediately escalated to a formal investigation. There is no room for actual conversation of concerning or worrisome dynamics. Yet mandatory reporting rules could have the unintended consequence of undermining discussion of sensitive topics or questions, by leading to the response: “If you disclose to me a personal experience of sexual violence or sexual harassment, then I am required to notify ___”.

Other messages found resonance with many in the room, including the simple acknowledgement that “we screwed up and we are dedicated to fixing it.” While we debated the appropriateness of any given message, we also recognized the degree that all faculty and students will be part of the conversation, and it will be exceedingly difficult to orchestrate any given message. Nevertheless, it seemed to all that whatever the message, the College needs to have an authentic voice while also enabling students and faculty to join the conversation without being silenced by fears of saying the wrong thing, or hurting someone’s feelings.

A number of other questions were raised in the discussion, including the following:

A week ago, when this conversation was scheduled, there seemed to be a need for more communication about this disaster. Since that time there has been a virtual spasm of setting up meetings, conversations, teach-ins, free speech events, and more. This is good. However, we want to avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts that are rapidly evolving across the university.

At the same time, we need to ensure that the conversation continues long after this initial flood of reactions fades, which it might well do over time. With that in mind, the Quello Center agreed to revisit this conversation in a couple of months to discuss whether there were some issues or activities not being adequately addressed. Given the many inquiries and reviews of this disaster, most only getting underway, there is a need for sustained attention over the coming years. How can we help ensure we continue to listen and learn as the lessons unfold from a predictably long, arduous, but necessary review process?

Bill Dutton[*]

Quello Center

[*] Compiled by Bill on behalf of all the participants in this discussion, which included Prabu David, David Ewoldsen, Carrie Heeter, Meredith Jagutis, Bianca Reisdorf, Nancy Rhodes, and Nicole Szymczak along with Bill Dutton.

New Media Addiction by A. Michael Noll

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

NEW MEDIA ADDICTION

A. Michael Noll

January 13, 2018

© Copyright 2019 AMN

Concern is being expressed about the addictive use of smartphones. It has even been suggested that software be installed to limit use of smartphones, particularly use by young people.

All the supposed harm is similar to what was said about radio and also about television during their early years. There was discussion decades ago about the need to restrict use. I am not old enough to remember the telegraph, but I can guess that similar predictions of doom from overuse were also made. And what of all the time wasted reading newspapers, along with all the controversial ideas that were disbursed.

It seems normal that there is an over-fascination with any new medium, such as a smartphone. And then with time, usage fades and other more traditional forms of communication and entertainment return. The novelty and social status of the new wears off.

A. Michael Noll