“Changing the Subject” and false comparisons to deliver your message

Verge reports the Trump administration will drop a mandate to require all automobiles to contain automated vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems.

The reporter writes

Under the Obama administration, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said V2V technology would greatly enhance autonomous driving technology to, “provide 360-degree situational awareness on the road,” and improve vehicle safety. [Emphasis added as the quote is about vehicle safety]

and then follows that with:

The Trump administration’s decision comes at a time when traffic fatalities in recent years have jumped to levels not seen since the 1960s.

Source: US set to drop proposed vehicle-to-vehicle communications mandate – The Verge

How do you interpret the above statement? Perhaps that vehicle safety is falling and traffic fatalities are increasing rapidly?

The reporter did a twist from vehicle safety to a numerical count of traffic fatalities presumably thinking they are the same measure. They are not.

Context Matters

Here is a chart of annual traffic fatalities since 1900. If you squint you can see that current traffic fatalities are just about equal to 1960. Thus, the reporter’s statement is true. But note that rates have only been below 1960 levels during the past half dozen years and may have bubbled upwards as part of normal annual variation.

But the reporter leaves out two crucial details

  1. The population of the U.S. has grown dramatically since 1960.
  2. The number of miles driven each year by each driver increases by about 1-2% per year.

When the fatality rate is converted to deaths per miles traveled – the only meaningful way to compare 57 years of data – we get a measure of vehicle safety. (There are other measures too.)

We now see that vehicle safety has reached an all time historical low – and is about ten times better than in 1960!

We do not know if the reporter is deliberately propagandizing this story.  The reporter has confused vehicle safety with a numerical count of traffic fatalities. This may just be really, really bad reporting. Or perhaps the reporter is using a false comparison to make his own point, whatever that is.

This technique of a false comparison is common in propaganda – and arguments – and we easily fall for it because its a magician’s sleight of hand that we do not notice.

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Disney’s “secret army” of Moms spread Disney promotional propaganda #marketing #astroturf

Disney has a secret army of mothers who flood the internet with Disney propaganda

While this sounds like a big deal and “secret” and what not, it is just “astro turf” public relations.

“Grassroots” organizing is when a group of people supposedly come together to promote something (often political or government policy related). The idea is that it is a movement that arose from the people.

In reality, nearly all “grassroots” movements today are “astro turf” operations, carefully orchestrated and run by public relations organizations. To learn more about how astro turf operations are run, see our previous post on astro turf propaganda. The best astro turf operations enlist participants who do not even realize that are being controlled as part of a public relations operation – participants think they are part of a grassroots movement!

Disney has enlisted an estimated 1,300 mothers who frequently blog about positive Disney experiences. Disney provides them with enhanced experiences at Disney theme parks with the hope this leads to further positive messaging, influencing the bloggers friends and followers  Participants blog and share their positive experiences on social media, enabling Disney to incorporate an astro turf army of moms into their social media marketing (also known as propaganda). The Mom’s who participate are fully aware of the PR efforts underway by Disney; this is not a secret.

None of this is new! Astro turf lobbying and astro turf marketing have gone on for years. Social media is merely a new platform for astro turf marketing.

Corollary: Absolutely nothing can be taken at face value: The innocent comments about a great experience at a restaurant or theme park may very well be sponsored. “Grass roots” lobbying efforts for a local city park or a state or Federal law are almost always driven by a professional public relations agency engaged in astro turfing. Social media  has expanded the ease with which fake grassroots messaging can be quickly delivered to millions of people.

Astro turf marketing is a powerful and effective method of propaganda that is frequently used to sell a product, service or an idea (such as new government program or policy).

Social media contributes to destruction, feeds upon the “culture of perpetual outrage”

Sorry for the long quote – each sentence here is meaningful to see how social media’s use as a friction-less platform for propaganda leads to lawlessness and destruction, often based on idiocy:

Josh Cobin’s story shows the strange social merging of virtual life and real life. The accusation that Trump is a fascist started as a typical bit of Twitter hyperbole, and now it stalks America in the form of a GoDaddy employee in a gas mask. To arrive at the notion that hurling things at the police isn’t attacking them, Josh had to confuse what one can get away with saying on a Reddit feed with what one can get away with actually doing on the streets of Phoenix. He looked like a cartoon figure in the online video—he bumbled his way into an online confession of his acts—in confusion about consequences offline. Joshua Stuart Cobin burned his hand because he didn’t know that recently fired tear-gas canisters really are hot, unlike the computer keyboards on which he typed his virtually hot protests against President Trump.

The glory of the Internet is that it allows like-minded people to find one another. And the horror of the Internet is that it allows like-minded people to find one another. Coin collectors, baseball-card enthusiasts, and used-book readers have all benefited from the opportunities offered by online connection. So have neo-Nazis, child-pornographers, and Communist agitators. Where they were once connected only by the sickly sweet smell of the ink from the mimeograph machine clumping away on the kitchen table, the forces of anger now have instantaneous links.

And that instantaneity allows a radicalizing more rapid than the world has ever seen.

Source: The Joy of Destruction | The Weekly Standard

Note “the forces of anger” reference at the end. Social media is perfectly matched to the “culture of perpetual outrage” where there is no room for intermediate perspectives, discussion, learning or compromise. It’s either my angry way or your dead!

And it works!

The rest of the article is about statues erected as memorials to (mostly) controversial figures of the Civil War era. But does a good job describing the culture of the perpetually outraged, who will bend themselves into contortions to maintain their outrage:

Social contagion does not need to be historically accurate, or philosophically wise, or even immediately practical. Why would it, when a sense of outrage lures us into mimetic rivalry and rewards agitation with a feeling of moral superiority—all delivered at the speed of the Internet? The local governments moving quickly to preempt protest may buy themselves a little time by hauling down memorials, but the protesters will soon lock on to new targets. The point of their protests, after all, is not correctly choosing what to be outraged by. The point is the outrage itself. The point, as Epictetus would have understood, is the quarrel.

Social media is the haven for the culture of perpetual outrage.

The web URL for this web site may be changing

I originally hosted this on my own virtual server at social.coldstreams.com.  I chose to stop self hosting because:

  1. The self hosted WordPress software, themes and plug ins required an endless stream of software updates, taking up much time since I hosted 4 blogs.
  2. Google decided to force web sites to use https security by pushing sites using http way down in search results. This requires purchasing, on an annual basis, a security certificate. Because I put my blogs on subdomains (social.coldstreams.com instead of coldstreams.com/social) this required that I purchase 4 separate security certificates to implement https, which becomes expensive. I did purchase one certificate and went through the process of converting an http site to https – while straightforward, this turned out to be quite time consuming.
  3. After moving the blog to WordPress.com, we see noticeably faster response time. Speed of response is also a factor used by search engines in ranking the search results. (Speed is faster on a huge server infrastructure like wordpress.com versus a virtual server hosted on a single server in Washington State.)

Unfortunately, Google also degrades search ranking for sites hosted on services like wordpress.com and using a generic xyz.wordpress.com web address. When hosted on social.coldstreams.com, this blog received most of its traffic as a result of search queries using Google, Bing and so on. As in hundreds of visits per day coming from search queries. By comparison, since I moved this to wordpress.com, the search query traffic collapsed to fewer than ten visits per day.

The solution is to set up a custom domain name for the blog causing search rankings to move up higher at Google and other search services.

This discovery illustrates the immense power that search engines have over access to information – and how they can control your thoughts by restricting access to information. This becomes a form of propaganda messaging – literally cherry picking what you see.

I do not yet know what URL I will use for this blog. However, it is likely that once it is implemented the existing Facebook page links back to this blog will no longer work. It is unlikely that I will fix the old links. New posts will be correctly linked, of course.

And incredibly, he is still dead 3 years later!

Twitter is today filled to the brim with tributes recognizing the death of Gabriel García Márquez, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

One tiny detail is missing from these tributes – he died in 2014! And apparently he just died again in 2017!

Just when you think the social media mob could not possibly do something dumber than the day before, there comes the next day!

Easily verifiable items spreading like wild fire on social media illustrate the true, friction-less nature of social media for the spread of propaganda messaging. This also demonstrates how easy it is to say anything – literally tell lies – and get away with it – on social media.

Capture

As one Twitter notes,

Capture

A related question is why are so many compelled to spread this story?

A possible explanation is signalling of some sort. Could be virtue signalling or could be signalling to others that you (the poster) are intellectual and well read or something else.

 

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.

Smart people more likely to consume fake news

“On the left if you’re consuming fake news you’re 34 times more likely than the general population to be a college graduate,” says Green.

If you’re on the right, he says, you’re 18 times more likely than the general population to to be in the top 20 percent of income earners.

And the study revealed another disturbing trend: the more you consume fake news, the more likely you are to vote. It’s “fascinating and frightening at the same time,” says Green.

Source: The rise of left-wing, anti-Trump fake news – BBC News

The BBC is a bit late to this story, having only just noticed that the largest social media-based, online, for profit fake news publisher is a Occupy Democrats that targets left wing enthusiasts with exaggerated, emotionally laden headlines and frequently false stores. Their goal is to target the emotions of liberal enthusiasts who then share the stories on social media, generating click throughs back to selling eyeballs to advertisers.

Many people think propaganda is a tool to manage “the unwashed masses”, but they are mistaken. Propaganda is effective across a broad swath of the population.

The late Professor Jacques Ellul, a French sociologist, found academics were among the most susceptible to propaganda. He suggests this is because academics are in the business of absorbing lots of information, much of which is unverifiable. They believe, he said, they should have an opinion on every subject and since their job is to instruct others, academics believe it is their duty to pass along information to others.

Ellul’s argument identifies the unexpected role that smart people often play in the consumption and distribution of propaganda.

For amusement vis a vis United Airlines, Ellul believes the purpose of “public relations” is to adapt individuals to societal norms by forcing individuals to conform. If you don’t conform, we will assault you – hah hah.

(Reference: Ellul, J. Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. Translated to English from the original French text. The book assumes the reader is already well versed in the basic methods and usage of propaganda.)

Using lies to spin a story

Lies work because people are absurdly trusting of others and surprisingly trusting of authority figures.

We saw this during the past week as both Chicago Aviation Police and United Airlines told lies to defend unlawful actions against a paying customer. Much of the media bought the United story without skepticism, reporting initially that a belligerent passenger refused to get off an overbooked flight and then injured himself as police were forced to remove him from the plane. Except none of those assertions were true.

If there had been no cell phone video, the story would have ended there. But as has become typical, multiple videos showed a different story of abusive police. And we learned the United Airlines flight was not overbooked but United was unlawfully assaulting a passenger because their own employees were more important than paying customers.

While much propaganda does not rely on lies, lies are used often enough because they usually work. As we saw here, the media merely regurgitated United propaganda assertions and lies – turning their initial news reports in to fake news.

Two other big lies were caught this week. One, the Daily Mail newspaper paid a nearly $3 million settlement to Melania Trump after printing false and defaming allegations about her for which they had no evidence.

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Is this why social media outrage is popular?

This blog has noted that many social media enthusiasts enjoy the culture of perpetual outrage that seems so prevalent there (and elsewhere too).  Here, Theodore Dalrymple suggests that outrage some how gives meaning to otherwise boring lives:

“Outrage is a substitute for religion: It convinces us that our existence has some kind of meaning or significance beyond itself, that is to say beyond the paltry flux of day-to-day existence, especially when that existence is a securely comfortable one. Therefore we go looking for things to be outraged about as anteaters look for ants. Of all emotions, outrage is not only one of the most pleasurable but also one of the most reliable.”

Quoted from Theodore Dalrymple