Disaster Propaganda Part 2: Is there anything it can’t do?

This is not the Part 2 I was planning to post. Guess there will be Part 3!

Earthquakes!

A 7.1 or 7.2 magnitude earthquake occurred near Mexico City. Mexico is the 7th most seismically active country due to the intersection of 3 tectonic plates. An 8.1 magnitude earthquake took place near there in 1985, causing massive destruction to Mexico City.

Big quakes in Mexico are not unusual and they cause enormous damage, deaths and injuries.

Fires!

The western U.S., and British Columbia, Canada, have seen an above normal wildland fire season. Many commenters think this is abnormal. It’s not.

2017 has been a bad fire year, to date. Yet 2 of the past ten years have burned more acreage, to date, and 4 of the past ten years have had more total fires than 2017 (to date) (from National Interagency Fire Center, as of September 15, 2017).

Going back even further, we can see that fires prior to 1950 burned vastly larger number of acres each year.

Chart from United States Forest Service

(Much of this has to do with how the U.S. did or did not fight fires at various times, and how fires are a natural part of the ecosystem. Aggressive fire suppression for decades has resulted in built up fuels.)

Hurricanes!

This year has seen the most hurricanes since  … 2005.  Then we had a 12 year drought of land falling large hurricanes. And people forgot that Florida has been hit by 119 hurricanes since 1850. Hurricanes, even large ones, are not unusual. For emphasis, here is what the scientists say.

The Solar Eclipse!

There was a solar eclipse visible in the United States, in August. Total solar eclipses occur somewhere about every two years, on average.

Pattern Matching!

People are constantly pattern matching their current experiences to create a model of how they think the world works. Not surprisingly, based on social media posts, people have concluded that

  • these events are unique and rare
  • they must be caused by something – there must be a cause so let’s find one that fits our limited world view!
  • their pattern matching has identified a pattern – that earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, the solar eclipse in August and climate change are linked together
  • Therefore, human behaviors are causing these disasters

Face palm moment.

Logical Nonsense

This illustrates how many are easily persuaded of logical nonsense.

Twitter is filled with bizarre tweets linking quakes, hurricanes, fires – and even the solar eclipse – to confirmation of human caused climate change. Yes, the eclipse caused fires! Hurricanes! Is there anything it can’t do?

I started to collect snapshots of the Tweets but there were far too many and I gave up.

Yet it is clear that many – including seemingly “smart” people – are drawing these correlations and have convinced themselves that quakes, hurricanes, fires, solar eclipses and climate change are all linked together!

Further, they believe it essential to share their nonsense propaganda with everyone on social media.

Never let a disaster go to waste!

Afterword

NBC News tried to push the “this must be unique” moment with the following:

If the problem with this silly statement is not obvious, consider the annual variance: “normal” varies between a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 28 named storms per year.

And then think about what “average” means.

Advertisements

Begging the question (fallacy) in propaganda messaging

“Begging the question, sometimes known by its Latin name petitio principii (meaning assuming the initial point), is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker assumes the statement under examination to be true. In other words, begging the question involves using a premise to support itself. If the premise is questionable, then the argument is bad.”

Source: Begging the question (fallacy) – Grammarist

This is explained by example at a conservative leaning blog:

This insidious process of begging the question is typical of totalitarian propaganda which made abundant use of expressions like “undeniably”, “unquestionably” or as “everyone knows” or their more modern equivalents like as “all decent people agree …”, “the science is settled” or “this is not who we are” to assume what must otherwise be proved. But it nevertheless compels obedience like a herd driving itself along.

This has the effect of positing a consensus which in fact may not exist.

This is the basic concept of asserting something to be true, followed by asserting that everyone already agrees (“Get on the Bandwagon” propaganda method).

This propaganda statement is extremely common as illustrated by the last item, above “this is not who we are” – this statement, often in exactly those words, was issued by United Airlines after they assaulted a paying customer, was used by Equifax after losing personal data on 143 million Americans, and is used in almost every press statement after a company has been caught doing something wrong or just plain stupid. Yet empirically, this is exactly who they are as illustrated by the event they are responding to!

Statements such as “everyone agrees” are intended to anchor you to the thought that the discussion on the topic is settled.

Disaster Propaganda

This might be the first of more than one post. I have been collecting, when possible, social media propaganda items regarding recent natural and unnatural disasters (such as local arson caused wildland fires).

  • First, many people use unusual events as a platform for propaganda messaging to persuade others of their own agenda.
  • Second, much of this propaganda messaging takes the form of asserting claims that when examined in context of historical data, are not true or are weakly partially true (which is why this form of propaganda is often effective).
  • Third, most of us lack context to recognize false claims. Virtually none of us will seek out data to confirm or deny the assertions. Remember, we employ System 1 emotional thinking rather than System 2 rational thinking, and quickly agree with a propaganda messaging that fits our pre-determined world view. (Disclosure: For extremely good personal reasons, based on extensive experience, my own world view is today to be highly skeptical of everyone’s claims.)

Examples

  • As Hurricane Harvey was impacting Texas, reporters wrote news articles saying this weather event is proof of catastrophic anthropocentric climate change (or sometimes called “warming” and hence CAGW).
  • Social  media’s “culture of perpetual outrage” spread this and linked in western wildfires (including those started by arson after a wet cold winter) as definitive proof of CAGW.
  • The news media writes that Hurricane Irma is so powerful it is sensed by seismometers with the unstated assertion this is novel and for the first time – but it is not unique.
  • The media loves hype – and will often hype predictions and forecasts in advance of events that turn out to be different than forecast (Oregon’s Eclipse Armageddon that-did-not-happen being a prime example). But readers and viewers will remember the emotional and scary predictions versus the reality.
  • Actors participate in propaganda messaging – actress Jennifer Lawrence seems to imply that if Hilary Clinton had been elected President, these hurricanes would not have occurred.

Validating the Claims

Some assertions, like the last one, fail the test of logic. Many assertions can be checked against past history – there is actual data and historical context.

Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Colorado and one of the world’s experts on disasters, has summarized the historical context of hurricanes and disaster damages in series of Tweets sourced to peer reviewed literature and IPCC documents.

Per Pielke’s summary, many of the claims asserted in the media and social media are not true.

Being told what to think by propaganda messaging is easy – and is our default System 1 thinking style. Learning to think for yourself – and employing System 2 thinking style – is hard work.

Do your best to be aware of propaganda methods and attempts to leverage current events for propaganda messaging. Set your B.S. detector to “sensitive mode”!

Remember

Not everything you see on social media is real, although I am certain this is genuine:

Disclaimer

This post is about using events (in this case, disasters) as the basis of propaganda messaging. Nothing in this post is about climate change promotion or denial and should not be construed as such.

Related

 

Charts that do not mean what you think they mean

A popular meme in media and social media is commentary about income distribution. The typical chart distributes the population into fifths or quintiles, like the chart shown here.

The popular interpretation of this chart is to find your income level at left and conclude you are stuck in that quintile forever – and your prospects for advancement are non-existent.

Did you know this interpretation is wrong?

Most people do not stay in the same quintile. People look at this chart, figure out where they are, and incorrectly assume they stay there forever – but the reality is that the people in the n-th quintile in 1990 are not the same group in 2000 or 2010!

Most begin their working life in the bottom or second quintile and over the course of their work life, rise to the 4th or 5th quintile. At retirement, their income (from investments, savings, pensions, government programs) causes them to fall downwards by one or two quintiles.  On the other hand, many people will fall into the 5th quintile – even the highest few percent of income – the day they sell their fully paid for home whose price has risen due to inflation (or technically, due to the Fed’s devaluation of the dollar).

The logical fallacy is to see this chart and assume that everyone stays in the same position over time.

A valid interpretation is that the 5th quintile sees rising incomes while others do not, but we go on to make the logical fallacy assumption that this is the same group of people, year over year.This is part of our brain’s ability to quickly jump to conclusions (Kahneman’s System 1 style thinking), which are often wrong!

The logical fallacy is to assume that only those in the 5th quintile today receive the rising income benefit – when in reality, many people will move up and down between the quintiles, over time.

Snopes rips the media for fake news stories

An in-depth analysis of the false allegations and misleading claims made against the 45th President since his inauguration.

Source: The Lies of Donald Trump’s Critics, and How They Shape His Many Personas

Read it, please.

I am not a fan of President Trump, did not support him and I am not involved with either the Democrat or Republican parties. I have watched with disbelief, however, as the full power of propaganda messaging has been brought to play by “professional journalists”. There are many, many, many negative things that can be reported accurately and get the point across – but as Snopes documents, reporters have crossed a line into fantasy writing, as if it is their intent to interfere with democracy itself. I have not previously written about this specific topic – propaganda versus Trump – because the topic is overwhelming in scope.

Thankfully, Snopes does an excellent job addressing the absurd levels to which propaganda messaging has become the default position and concludes:

It has to be acknowledged that since January, many of Trump’s opponents, and even lukewarm supporters, have found considerable fault with his policies and behavior, based on accurate facts. There have been many occasions when Trump himself, undistorted and unfiltered, contributed mightily to the four personas we have outlined.

….

[but regarding poorly produced news stories] these sorts of massive exaggerations and gross distortions are even more corrosive and destructive than fake news about diarrhea on the golf course, because they bear some distant relationship with the truth.

Which is precisely how the best propaganda operates – it has at least some link to truth, but bends and distorts that truth to motivate the target to adopt and agenda or take action.

Years ago, I observed the use and power of propaganda to persuade others to adopt someone’s agenda. That led to much study on the subject and to the creation of this blog and Facebook page.

Politics is a minefield of propaganda messaging not only from politicians but also from their fanatical devotees on social media plus their friends in the mainstream media whose bad reporting is shared on social media as confirmation of allegations.

In the linked post, Snopes eviscerates the credibility of professional media (and some of the professional fake news web sites, especially those on social media) due to the media’s having morphed into a full time propaganda operation. In the future (which could be next week), when the Media screams “Wolf!”, few people will believe them anymore.

Remember, there are many, many issues regarding Trump that can be reported accurately and are quite negative for Trump or his policies. There is plenty to bash by just sticking to facts and policies. But the media, as Snopes documents, has become a giant propaganda messaging operation. Discerning truth from such overwhelming propaganda firepower is difficult.

We worry about allegations of foreign nations interfering in our elections but ignore media actually doing so through lies, distortions and inaccurate reporting.

The remarkable power of propaganda

I just scanned Twitter for items about the Affordable Care Act.

I estimate 99% of the Tweets were lies, contained significant errors, left out key information, or significantly exaggerated points. This included linked news stories at main stream news services such as the Los Angeles Times and NPR and others, which contained significant inaccuracies or left out crucial information and data that refuted the thrust of the article.

How many read the ACA? Probably a number approaching zero.

How many researched any of the topics at all? Probably a very small number.

So why are these people posting so much nonsense on Twitter?

Because of the effectiveness of propaganda that has delivered messages to them, which they in turn, regurgitate online, further spreading the propaganda message.

I covered this previously in National public opinion surveys are propaganda messaging in disguise.

Unfortunately, most national surveys of “American’s opinions” are surveys of propaganda effectiveness. The survey itself then adds to the growing body of propaganda messaging on a subject and becomes, itself, a form of propaganda.

You can go to news.google.com and find similar surveys.

  • 9% of American’s Feel Shingles Vaccination is a Priority
  • Many believe race relations will worsen under Trump
  • 68% of Americans believe humans are causing warming
  • 71% of Americans consider granola bars to be healthy

Surveys often follow a period of concerted propaganda messaging in the media.

In these and other cases, the survey is primarily measuring the effectiveness of the propaganda messaging around a subject. Most American’s understand little of the facts or logic for any of these items (and many more). Survey respondents are regurgitating the view given to them by propaganda messaging and the methods used to persuade masses of people.

 

Two heroes murdered in Portland defending teens against anti-Muslim hate speech

An individual harassed two teen women on Portland’s Trimet MAX rail system, verbally attacking Muslims and others. Three local heroes stepped up to stop the verbal assault and two were murdered by the attacker and one remains hospitalized. Additional heroes include those who provided immediate first aid and those who left the train to follow the attacker on the street.

Not surprisingly, social media, even some professional media, plus the comments to news stories, turned the story in to a political event, blaming “alt-right”, Trump and Trump supporters and Republicans. The Huffington Post writes a column blaming Trump and others.

The tiny problem with this thesis is that the alleged murderer was a Bernie Sanders supporter and voted for Bernie Sanders, or so he says on his FB page. The only way he could have voted for Sanders in Oregon is by being a registered Democrat. He also appeared to support Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. He attended an “alt-right” public event in Portland where he is said to have shouted down “left wing” protesters and was kicked out by the “right wing” event organizers. He was vociferously opposed to Hillary Clinton and said little about Trump other than publicly calling for the assassination of AG Jeff Sessions and Trump. He does not say who he voted for in November.  He advocated in favor of several left wing causes on his Facebook page.

One of the defenders of the Muslim teen, was a past Republican Party candidate for public office; he was murdered.

In spite of this, many in the social media crowd blamed Trump and conservatives for the behavior of the alleged murderer. The Portland Mayor is now calling for the cancellation of public event permits issued to a group holding a pro-Trump rally. (The ACLU says that would be unconstitutional and the Mayor eventually backed off. A separate, racist-themed  event a week later, was canceled by the organizer.)

As The Willamette Weekly notes, the only consistency in the alleged murderer’s rants is that he was extremely racist. Newsweek, a reliable source of fake news (see their coverage of Satoshi Sakamoto), uses the propaganda method of transference to link the alleged murderer to Trump. Some of the local Portland media immediately ran with the “alt-right” meme, launching the social media firestorm that was off the rails from the start. Yet the only conclusion that can be reached is the individual is severely messed up. (“Alt-right” is a term white supremacists and neo-Nazis adopted to describe themselves. They adopted the label to re-brand as something other than Nazis, with hopes the label would imply transference of a softer view of their hate ideology. The label does not refer to traditional conservative politics although in Portland, “alt-right” seems to describe any group that is not left wing or progressive.)

This story is a sad commentary on the ugliness that spawned such hate to occur, but also on the public’s desire to jump to a conclusion that matches their preconceived notions, without questioning. The social media commentary turned so ugly that The Oregonian disabled commenting on their news stories. Never let facts get in the way of an opportunity to promote one’s personal ideology on social media!

Social media, and in particular, Facebook’s implementation of social media (FB presents posts in your timeline that FB believes you want to see), serves to reinforce views, even if those views are contrary to facts and logic. Consequently, social media has become the number one platform for the dissemination of propaganda messaging. Confused messages, including those of the alleged murderer, are freely posted and shared on social media.

To see the evidence of the alleged murder’s political thoughts, click through …

(I live in the Portland area. I am neither Democrat nor Republican and I did not vote for Trump.)

Update: Late on May 30th, The Oregonian catches up with the background of the individual: “Who is Jeremy Christian? Facebook shows a man with nebulous political affiliations who hated circumcision and Hillary Clinton“. While the story confirms what I wrote above, The Oregonian botches the story with this quote: “The question of whether Christian was a Trump supporter or a Sanders supporter, doesn’t have an either/or answer, except: he definitely was not a Clinton supporter.” As you will see after the break, Christian promoted Sanders on his Facebook page and said he voted for Sanders. There is no ambiguity on that point. He does not say who he voted for in November, but said after the election that may be he should have voted for Trump.

Update: May 31, local Republican groups say they are receiving death threats in response to the events of the past few days.

Continue reading

Most car crashes caused by cellular phone usage?

I saw an item on a Facebook group where the general meme was that everyone knows cellular phone usage while driving is the cause of most vehicle crashes. The data, however, paints a remarkably different picture. Cellular phone usage, per the government’s own data, is a minor causative factor in vehicle crashes.

There are many causative factors in car crashes: one category of causative factors is “distracted driving”. Cellular phone usage is a subset of “distracted driving”.

The U.S.government’s National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published a report in 2016 on distracted driving, with data up to 2014 (the most recent data available).

Here is what they write on page 1:

“A distraction-affected crash is any crash in which a driver was identified as distracted at the time of the crash.

  • Ten percent of fatal crashes, 18 percent of injury crashes, and 16 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2014 were reported as distraction-affected crashes…”

Let’s restate this:

  • 10% of fatal crashes involved a driver distraction
  • 18% of injury crashes involved a driver distraction
  • 16% of all reported crashes involved a driver distraction

The proportion of those distracted driving incidents where a cellular phone was a causative factor is a subset of these percentages (see tables in the report):

  • 7% of 10% of fatal crashes or less than 1% of all fatal crashes
  • 13% of 18% of injury crashes or about 2.3% of all injury crashes
  • Cellular phone usage for “all crashes” (including non fatal, non injury) is not provided in the report but is likely similar to the two other categories.

The data provided by the U.S. government does not support the widespread meme that cellular phone usage is the leading cause of vehicle crashes. Is my interpretation off in space? The report uses remarkably plain language for a government report. Am I missing something?

Why do people believe cellular phone usage is a leading cause if not pre-dominant cause of vehicle crashes?  (This was the conclusion of those in a Facebook group discussing this topic.)

There is no official answer to that question so we can only guess:

  1. Selected (cherry picked) emotional stories are given widespread media exposure
  2. Bad journalism/bad reporting (fake news from “non-fake” news sources) – often using a variety of propaganda methods to convey this. One common approach in news reports is to quote an “expert” (appeal to authority) who says “Over 30% of crashes are caused by cellular phone usage”. This is a common quote in many news reports, none of which substantiate the number except by an appeal to authority.
  3. Propaganda efforts by the insurance industry to promote a reduction in risk (and their costs)
  4. The tendency to generalize from n=small numbers (I once saw a bad driver using a cellular phone, therefore most bad driving is due to cellphone usage, and if most bad driving is due to cell phone usage then this must be the cause of most crashes). This is a”logical fallacy“.
  5. Everyone just knows that cellular phone usage by drivers causes most crashes (both the assertion and the get on the bandwagon propaganda methods).
  6. If anyone cites the data in a social media reply, this unleashes a barrage of name calling (another propaganda method) that if you disagree, you are a denier, an idiot or whatever.

Facts and logic are the enemy of propaganda. When many people believe something to be true, and that “something” is not supported by official data, it is likely that propaganda messaging has been used to persuade the public.

Past week was great demo of power of propaganda

As everyone now knows, last week Sunday evening, United Airlines forcefully removed a passenger from one of their United Express branded aircraft.

The initial official statement from United Airlines was that they reluctantly had to remove a belligerent passenger from an overbooked flight, the passenger’s injuries were because the passenger fell and hurt himself, and the airline had every right to do so.

Before the week was over, the CEO of United admitted in a televised interview that the passenger had done nothing wrong – no violation of rules, regulations or laws, the flight was not overbooked, United violated its own Contract of Carriage with passengers and video showed that the “police” had violently assaulted the passenger and then lied about it on their official report. Further, the “police” were security guards who did not have authorization to board aircraft nor arrest anyone.

A week later we find people on social media using strongly worded comments echoing United’s initial public relations propaganda, and saying the uncooperative passenger was required to obey the (unlawful) directives of flight crew and had no rights. All of these statements we now know are not true.

BUT – this ilustrates the power of propaganda. Remember that the first propaganda message that people hear and see, even if shown as false, is the message that sticks.

United’s public relations staff know this and they certainly approved, if not wrote, the CEO’s comments. Their comments were cold hearted, passive-voiced, defamatory and lies.

Continue reading

Repost: Media and social media perpetual “outrage culture”

I posted this previously on November 17, 2016. Social media and media messaging have turned our entire world into a culture of perpetual outrage:

We have a media system that loves to yell and scream. It is basically its default setting. Forget deliberation and civil discourse, it goes immediately to outrage and cynical condescension, or in other cases, relentless and unprovoked shaming. And we, as the consumers and residents of this culture, have come to confuse all this noise and reaction with action. Psychologists call this the narcotizing dysfunction—when the amount of effort and energy poured into something becomes self-soothing, obliterating any notions of effectiveness or reality.

The result? Our daily nightmare. A world in which not only are truth, vulnerability and nuance completely lost—but the incompetent and the conniving in our midst are able to capture immense amounts of attention. Where not only is shamelessness the ultimate defense against any form of accountability, but where all the normal, qualified and well-adjusted people have walked away in disgust.
….
At this point, everything in-between—vulnerability, nuance, truth—may as well not exist. When our culture encourages the fakeness and stupidity and trolling it is supposedly trying to rail against, there is no room for anything else.

Source: This Is The Hollowed-Out World That Outrage Culture Has Created | Observer

I was reminded of this today because of widespread publicity about the Women’s March to protest Trump. The March was initiated after a recording of Trump making lewd, vile and disgusting comments about women, was made public last fall.

Today I realized I am so old that I remember when women’s rights leaders actively defended a serial sexual predator in the White House and condemned the victims.

What has changed between then and now?

Perhaps the power of social media to keep us in a state of perpetual outrage.

(If it is not clear from the first paragraph, I believe Trump should be condemned for his outrageous and lewd comments. I have to state this, of course, because of the logical fallacy that if I do not, you may – will – assume the opposite.)